Short Take: Race and Urbanism in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman

Gayatri Devi |

Candyman, Director Nia DaCosta, Written by Jordan Peele, 2021.

Thirty years ago, I almost completely missed the blatant racism of the first Candyman film (1992) because of the intentionally revolting imagery of the film that triggered not only a psychosomatic fear and horror, but also aversion and disgust in the viewer. If you were like me, you walked away from the film dreading whether the Candyman would come and kill you if you said his name five times looking in the mirror, while simultaneously feeling helpless to unsee the soiled and overflowing toilet bowl in the grimy, broken-down stall seething and moving with a swarm of bees. It was apocalyptic terror, supernatural horror, and serial killer nightmare all packaged into one seemingly endless fright. The decapitated dog, the single, large, iron hook drilled into the bloody stump of the man’s dismembered hand, the Candyman burning into a cinder in the yard fire, and, above all, the bees streaming out of the man’s mouth, fluttering about his cratered, fissured, face, resting on his eyelids—the intensity of the horror and revulsion kept the underlying racist implications of the story in abeyance for me.

Looking back, however, the 1992 Candyman catered to every single white, racist assumptions about black men. In particular, the fictional nineteenth century legend of the Candyman made for the film revolved around a young African American artist by the name of Daniel Robitaille who fell in love with a white woman and was subsequently tortured and murdered by the white family. They cut off his hands, tortured him, then burned a bee hive and smeared honey all over this body, and let the bees sting him to death before burning his body. In return — and, this is the racist core of the story — the legend argued that the dead man came back as the Candyman, a boogeyman with a hook for his hand and a thirst for blood to exact revenge for this murder, interestingly, not on the white society responsible for his murder, but on other black men, women and children. This is the element that does not compute which opens up a racial critique of the film.

The first Candyman film was an adaptation of the short story “The Forbidden” by the British horror writer Clive Barker, which fellow British director Bernard Rose transplanted from the slums of Liverpool to the housing projects of Cabrini-Green in Chicago, an impoverished African American neighborhood in the 1990s, and now a gentrified and sought-after high-rise suburb of the sprawling city. If black men desiring only white women and being a threat to white women (and men) was the dominant racist myth underlying this film, an equally insidious secondary myth was the attribution of urban poverty exclusively to black communities and black neighborhoods as a racial given, and, not, evidently, as a failure of city planning. The Cabrini-Green housing project in the 1992 Candyman film seems suspended out of time; we find a few tough characters roaming the derelict buildings, and the only partially fleshed-out black character is that of Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams); the remainder of the African American community in Cabrini-Green is an anonymous, nameless, faceless group. While Barker’s original short story is an exploration of urban decay—Lyle’s research work has to do with the semiotics of urban despair—in Rose’s adaptation, Cabrini-Green merely becomes the locus of the myth of the boogeyman without really exploring the connection between the environment and the myth.

Director Nia DaCosta’s and writer Jordan Peele’s Candyman is a kick in the guts to this earlier racist Candyman. It is not easy to turn the trajectory of a legend so decisively once and for all. It is like Shakespeare writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as it is sometimes pointed out. After this, you cannot do all that other silly stuff. You have to do better. You have to refresh the story. You have to make the legend move with the times. That is what DaCosta and Peele have done with their take on the Candyman urban legend in their adaptation.

DaCosta’s Candyman opens with a stunning sequence of title credits where everything we see onscreen is reversed and inverted. We are already looking into the mirror. We enter the film fully immersed in the one constituent element of the Candyman legend: he can be summoned only through the mirror. Chicago, the city of incomparable architecture floats upside down. DaCosta pays homage to the panoramic tracking sequence of Bernard Rose’s Candyman, the flyovers and the mix masters showing the urban sprawl and reach of Chicago. DaCosta replaces the aerial views of the city with vertiginous close-ups of Chicago’s high-rises, but turns the perspective upside down. We are invited to view Chicago through the legend of the Candyman in her retelling. It is brilliant.

From this opening sequence, we are instantly thrown into the world of Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an artist, and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonna Parris), an art museum curator, in one of these new high-rise apartments where the young and the affluent live. Over the course of a friendly, domestic evening with friends, the couple learns about the legend of the Candyman from Brianna’s brother. The conversation begins with the group discussing the nice, new, luxury lofts built upon land salvaged and refurbished from the row houses and projects of Cabrini Green which still exist outside their protected bubble. His curiosity triggered by the Candyman legend, McCoy visits the dilapidated housing projects at Cabrini-Green, much like Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) visited the project in the eponymous 1992 film. DaCosta subverts the old legend in one brilliant stroke as we watch Anthony trace the steps that Helen Lyle took in 1992. Whereas Helen was an outsider walking into an ethnographic matrix to interview the “other” for her dissertation, for Anthony it is a going back, a déjà vu, a regression into mythical time. Much like Helen does, in an elaborate and extended sequence, McCoy wanders through the seedy, decrepit and derelict row houses, site of formal neglect and gang wars, drug trade, crime, and murders, but he has come here not for the people, not for the legend, but for the place. How did this place come to be? What was it before? What happened here? Legends are born in specific places and specific times.

It is simply marvelous how Peele’s tight script and DaCosta’s powerful direction turn the black man-white woman love story turned lynching/torture/death of the black man, followed by the black baby saved by the sacrificial white woman, and the black community canonizing the white martyr woman, into a straight indictment of the social forces that have rationalized the killing of black men for the last two hundred years in the United States. Unlike Daniel Robitaille, the original black artist whose torture and killing gave birth to the Candyman legend, and Sherman Fields, the second innocent black man wrongly killed at the beginning of the serial legend in the 1992 film, and unlike Anthony himself in the latest retelling, it is Anthony’s girlfriend who is the real hero of the 2021 remake. Brianna Cartwright is no Helen Lyle. It is quite apt that she is an art curator, and in many respects, stands for the powerful voice of black women who have spearheaded the Black Lives Matter movement in this decade. She could even be a stand-in for the director herself, Nia DaCosta, who is updating the Candyman legend to foreground the senseless murders of black men, not for some sentimental love story, but for the ordinary racist underpinnings of their violent murders. Thus, the Candyman who indiscriminately killed black people in the original story, the “black on black killing,” as it is often presented in racist propaganda, in DaCosta’s and Peele’s retelling, becomes the antagonist of the Chicago PD who have earned their own notoriety for shooting and killing unarmed black and brown men.

The new Candyman is a fine production where the violence and the gore do not merely repulse, but are effectively transmuted into a larger tale of historically rooted poverty, exploitation, neglect, violence and suffering that we understand clearly as an arrangement and decision of social forces with a unique human signature and not metaphysical evil. I absolutely loved how DaCosta rendered the entire 1992 Candyman film like puppet theatre with the strings visible. Brava! Any future retellings of Candyman would have to reckon with DaCosta’s retelling.


Gayatri Devi is Professor of Liberal Arts at SCAD in Savannah, Georgia. She is also a contributing editor to North Dakota Quarterly.

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