Unpacking ‘Candyman’ and Its Darkest Revelation

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[This story contains spoilers for Candyman.]

He is the writing on the wall, the whisper in the classroom. Without these things, he is nothing. Director Nia DaCosta doesn’t merely write or whisper, she paints a large canvas encompassing generations of trauma, and then proceeds to shout the name from the rooftops: Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. Candyman. And through those acts, Candyman looms larger than he ever has before, casting a shadow over the past and present.

People are stories. We are made up of the things we say about ourselves. But even more so, we are made up of what others say about us. And those stories get used, and sometimes abused, in order for the personal to become the communal — for the story to be torn into pieces and disseminated among everyone who hears it, until it no longer resembles you at all. Not a single one of us is above being sacrificed for the sake of a good story. We see it every day to various degrees, from social media to news media. We see people captured by the snapshot of an image, a meme, a headline, and we think we know the story and therefore have unwrapped the person. That’s alarming. But when considered through the lens of Blackness, it becomes horrifying.

“Thank you, George Floyd, for sacrificing your life for justice…because of you, and because of thousands, millions of people around the world who came out for justice, your name will always be synonymous with justice.” That was the story Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi told of George Floyd in April this year. And in that story is a taste of Black martyrdom, the notion that Floyd gave his life in “advancement of race relations,” and within it the secret confessional that emboldened many a white person to say ‘I see now. I understand now.’ Ironically, Pelosi’s statement came long after what was meant to be the original release date of DaCosta’s Candyman. Yet, it’s Black martyrdom that Candyman explores, not through white eyes, but Black. Candyman allows for Black people to tell a story about themselves, and that story is one that isn’t easily told or always comforting.

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Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, right) reaches toward a reflection of Candyman in Candyman.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures.

From the very start, DaCosta’s Candyman establishes itself as a reflection on Bernard Rose’s 1992 film, Candyman. The mirror images of the opening logos descend into a grounds-eye view through downtown Chicago, a reverse of Rose’s helicopter shot through the same location in the opening of the original. DaCosta’s choice is more than just a clever homage. It is establishing this new iteration of Candyman serves as a companion piece to the first. DaCosta isn’t taking audiences above setting, allowing them to exist outside of it, but right in the midst of it. It could be argued, as some critics have, that Candyman doesn’t last long enough to savor all the various ideas it explores, but I’d argue it’s what we leave the film with, the conversations and analysis we bite into, the after-taste that makes it an essential piece of horror, and particularly Black Horror or Horror Noire, as examined in a recent episode of the THR podcast Hollywood Remixed.

Rose’s film, based on Clive Barker’s short story, “The Forbidden,” examines the urban legend of Candyman through the white perspective of its director and lead character. It’s as much of a flaw as it is a feature, and protagonist Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) as a tourist in Black spaces, situates herself in the mythology of the ghetto and Black suffering. The notion of Candyman (Tony Todd) as a Black figure terrorizing Black people has always seemed like an incongruous element of his characterization, an aspect that author and horror scholar Tananarive Due has explored on multiple occasions, and which led to my own analysis of Rose’s film in July’s Fangoria No. 12 in which I asked: whose monster is Candyman? He’s a reason for white people to fear the ghetto and reduce it grad school theses, certainly, but he’s also a manifestation of internalized Black shame and pain, the feeling of being trapped by the stories told about you as a community and as a people until it eats you alive.

DaCosta, and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld reclaim Candyman, conjuring up a mythic figure born of blood memory and racial trauma. Gentrification will obviously be at the forefront of discussions surrounding DaCosta’s film, as explored through the Cabrini Green projects being devoured by new apartment complexes for bougie artists and wealthy renters. But it goes deeper than that, into the systemic racism that results in Black people being pit against each other in a battle to have their story heard.

Interestingly, DaCosta’s film navigates this territory through lead characters that are storytellers. Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is a visual artist who has achieved some minor acclaim for his works exploring Black pain. His girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) is an art gallery director, essentially organizing stories and opening them up to the public – a skillset that comes back tenfold in the finale. When the film opens, McCoy hasn’t made a new piece in three years. There is an unspoken but deeply felt sentiment that he is tired of trafficking in Black suffering, like that of his most well-regarded piece of a tattooed Black man with a noose around his neck, head and face undepicted. McCoy’s feelings seem to echo DaCosta’s own recent comments in a recent interview with The Guardian. “We should be able to make different kinds of movies, so I’m really happy I got to make The Marvels because it’s like, I genuinely can just make a movie that doesn’t have to traffic in Black pain. And I feel like a lot of black film-makers are asked to or expected to do that,” DaCosta said.

Black artists and writers in general are often asked to traffic, exhume, and re-exhume racism. Even if it’s not always a conscious request, so much of what we get asked to do stems from a desire to have Black people pick their own scabs, as Anthony later literally does on his own hand, and the scabs of others because we share the same skin tones. This is of course preferrable to anyone else talking about Blackness, but it does become exhausting because so many of the stories told about Black people are only interested in our suffering, in Plymouth Rock landing on us over and over and over again. Yet, many of us have been able to ease our own suffering by serving, not as a tourist like Helen, but as a tour-guide, or Carnival Barker ushering in spectators to experience the sweets of our misery. ‘Welcome to the experience of loving yet being constantly self-conscious about being in your own skin. See anything you like?’

So, it’s a weird space that Anthony, Brianna, and her brother, Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) find themselves in. They have managed to benefit, as much as one can, by systemic racism through using art and culture as an escape, but only so much as they provide for the white community. As Anthony tells art critic, Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence), “You love what we make, but not us.” DaCosta explores several iterations of that statement, not only through McCoy and his rising prominence once his Candyman-inspired interactive art piece, “Say My Name” gains notoriety in the wake of murders, but also Brianna’s rise in the art world. There’s a scene near the end of the second act where Brianna meets with Black museum curator Danielle Harrington (Christina Clarke), who isn’t interested in her skills as a gallery director and finding pieces so much as she is in how Brianna’s story relates to McCoy, Candyman, and the recent murders. She wants Brianna to be a sacrifice for the sake of commercialization. And this scene with Harrington takes place in front of a statue of a white man, a pointed statement that even as a Black woman, Harrington is serving the white patriarchy, and her interests in Brianna go only so far as she fits into that design. As the saying goes, “not all skinfolk are kinfolk.”

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Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures.

This brings us to the William Burke (Coleman Domingo) of it all, a resident living in the bones of the Cabrini-Green. Before discussing his reveal and complicated morality at play there, it’s important to note that from the onset Burke is established not only as a keeper of the remnants of the Cabrini-Green, but also of stories, and therefore people. He’s keeping people alive in the graveyard of his home. “Candyman ain’t a he. Candyman’s the whole damn hive,” Burke tells Anthony. His Candyman was Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), and because he’s the one Burke tells Anthony about, it’s Fields who lives and claims victims much of the film. This is an additive bit of mythology, but also fits nicely within the frame of the 1992 film, in which Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd) is the name of the Candyman Helen is told about by colleague, Phillp Purcell (Michael Culkin) and therefore the one who she sees and the one who wreaks havoc. I can’t help but wonder, given the fact there are multiple Candymen, creating this hive, if there exists a Queen, a Candy Queen. After all, so much of the burden of Black pain and trauma has fallen upon Black women. While I’m not certain that the film is alluding to that through expansion of the mythos, it feels as though there is the germ of an idea there with these masculine man-made monsters working in service of a larger, more profound pain.

It’s fitting that following the four Candymen Anthony learns about, and later incorporates into his art, that he becomes the fifth Candyman, given the significance of that number in the mythos. Yet, Anthony’s becoming is markedly different from his predecessors. Part of that difference is a result of him not knowing his own history, and where he came from. While those audience members dutifully tapped into Rose’s film surely recognized the name Anthony McCoy as the infant who Candyman steals in the original movie, the revelation is shocking to Anthony, as is the fact that he was born near the Cabrini-Green, in the projects. His mother, Anne-Marie (Vanessa Williams) sought to protect him, but that protection and distance resulted in ignorance. This too, feels like a deep commentary about Black people, removed from the projects and from the suffering of their forebearers, who believe they are different, and secretly live with the idea that they are above their brothers and sisters. They too need to be reminded of the past. We’re all part of the same ghetto.

When the film arrives at the reveal that it was Burke who led Anthony down the path of becoming the new Candyman, it cuts open an uncomfortable but honest aspect of Black identity. Burke harbors an anger that the Cabrini-Green has been paved over, its people and their tragedies, like Sherman Fields, like his sister, forgotten because white people created monsters through lynching, through shooting, and through ghettos, and people like Anthony have benefitted as a result, through art and through inhabiting spaces that allow them to feel, if only slightly, less othered. It’s not something that Anthony wants to hear, especially not from a white woman, but as Finley tells him, Black artists have played their own part in the gentrification of Chicago and the respectability politics attached to that. Burke is the full weight of Finley’s words, made more powerful because they come from the actions of a Black man.

Sometimes terrible things must happen to someone like you in order for you to be recognized and seen. No Black person who truly values their own Blackness wants to see a Black person gunned down by cops. But we also can’t deny that the outcry when it happens, the treatment from people and establishments who never empathized with our pain before, does feel empowering for many on some, often unspoken level. There is a certain, albeit small, comfort born out of seeing Black Lives Matter signs in white neighborhoods, out of laws being changed to benefit us, and getting a chance to have a platform to tell our own stories and control our own narrative. No, these “comforts” don’t t fix the problem, it doesn’t in any way make up for the lives lost, and it’s a far cry from the reparations we’re owed but never will receive, but it does allow the story of our Blackness to be seen in a way it wasn’t before. It’s not as simple as being a bittersweet scenario. It’s a candy-coated razorblade. It’s unfortunate that the only means to register empathy so often seems to be through the cyclical process of our own deaths: From Emmett, Malcolm, and Martin to Sandra, Elijah, Breonna, George, and the next. It’s the result of a system so rigged that even when that system starts to work in our favor for a little bit, despite the heavy costs, it feels like a salvational boon. It’s absurd that we should have to experience that, but it’s the truth.

Burke is the hard truth, and salvation is what he’s after in the act of making Anthony the new Candyman. The exact means through which he achieves this aren’t important, much in the same way as the question of how the Tethered were created in Us, or how consciousness is supplanted in Get Out. Horror that carries Jordan Peele’s name is horror born of emotion and metaphor rather than clearly dictated logic. Things happen beyond our understanding, and in some ways, it’s more frightening. That is the Ur form of horror. And Burke serves as a priest within that horror.

The fact that Burke finishes Anthony’s process of transformation, of ascension in a church, shouldn’t be lost on us. Anthony is made into a martyr who dies for the sins of America. The Christ metaphor is apparent, but in locale that is both sacred and yet covered by graffiti and tributes to Candyman, Burke’s priesthood is one born of a blend of Christianity and paganism, a modern Black magic. Undoubtedly, Burke’s actions will be seen as divisive by audiences. He’s making a martyr out of an unwilling Black man. Is that any different from Pelosi? I’d argue that it is, because while Burke’s actions aren’t right, they do stem from a place of true understanding of history, of being caught in a cycle and wanting to break free by any means necessary. It would be too easy to reduce Burke’s desecration of Anthony’s body as Black on Black violence. But it’s more than that, it’s the act of taking that narrative and controlling it — it’s violence as a means of revolution, hideous it may be. Burke is literally forcing Anthony to confront the history and pain he thought was separate from him and become a part of it, a part of the hive.

When the cops shoot Anthony, it’s after he was already in the process of becoming what he ultimately becomes. He was already on the path to becoming Candyman, and because he was set on the path by a Black man, his death by white cops doesn’t give them power over his story. It’s significant that we see Burke remove Anthony’s arm and replace it with a hook, but we only hear the sound and see the shadows of the cops’ violence against Anthony. In the weird alchemy of the mythology at the center of the film, Candyman, becomes a force for Black people because this time he was created by Black people. As Anthony shifts, exposing every iteration of Candyman until finally Daniel Robitaille emerges, he gives Brianna one clear message, “Tell everyone,” entreating her to fulfill the very essence of her job, to open this story to the public. It is the voice of a Black woman that brings about a new order.

The result of telling everyone is that Candyman no longer exists as an urban legend, but as a new religion. Candyman isn’t a martyr but a deity deciding who is innocent and who is not, who is contributing to and benefiting from the disparity created by systemic racism, and who is not. He’s Old Testament-style Black God, and depending on the viewer, there’s nothing more powerful and nothing more terrifying than that idea. We’re all stories, but in the end, Candyman decides which ones are sweet enough to save.

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