‘Candyman’ is Horror with Something on its Mind

Candyman (2021) is Nia DaCosta’s conversation with the original 1992 classic. You know the story: in 1870, freed slave Daniel Robitaille (the amazing Tony Todd) was an artist who fell in love with a white woman. Her father had him tortured, mutilated and killed, his left hand replaced with a hook. Say his name five times while looking in the mirror, the story goes, and he will return and seek vengeance.

I loved the original, but knew it was black pain for white viewers (even in terms of the production, where the wonderful Tony Todd was paid a bonus for every time a bee stung his mouth. We were watching REAL black pain simulating FAKE black pain for the pleasure of audiences secretly appalled by the notion of miscegenation and eager to release that tension with fiction), the black man who was foolish enough to touch a white woman transformed into a monster as a morality play, an example of what not to do. And Lordy, did they lean into that imagery. “Be my victim” meant “be my love” and when College student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) researches him, she slides down a rabbit hole of death and madness, all of it plausibly metaphorical warning for black men and white women to stay away from each other.

HOW could I love a film which, at its core, was so problematic? Because in a sane world, with proportional representation, it would have been simply one of a spectrum of images rather than a sour note white America loves to play.

Now, DaCosta has done something remarkable: taken this problematic (but hugely entertaining) fable and reinterpreted it to fit the “black gaze.” The results are unmistakably NOT the original. This Candyman has what David Cronenberg labeled dangerous in Videodrome: it has a philosophy. It has a perspective on what happens to a dream deferred, or more specifically what happens when the past collides with the present. Arguably, for 400 years the truth of race relations has been obscured. The Civil War asked if blacks were human. The civil rights movement asked if we were citizens. But post 2000 the question has been the REAL one: “are they equal?”

I mean really, fundamentally equal. Not “under the law” or “in the eyes of God” but actually… equal.

About a third of the country is very uncomfortable with that question, which will tell you what percentage believes the answer is “no.” Because if we are actually equal in worth and capacity, you have to ask some very uncomfortable reasons about how tilted and mined the “playing field” had to be, to have created the social damage we can see by looking at readily available statistics. And Candyman 2021 suggests that the concerns of BLM stretch back to 1870 and before, that this hideous monster is a response to oppressive violence and multigenerational carnage. “Candyman ain’t a person. It’s the whole damned hive” one character says. And the metaphor is powerful.

The core human artistic impulse is expression of emotion, a desire to communicate your essential being to another human, and the best horror is no exception, using some powerful emotion: sex, fear of aging and corruption, etc, to drive the images. So they can say “step into the movie theater. Bring your fears with you. Leave them here” and get you to scream at things that AREN’T your real concerns, but are close enough that losing yourself in the story somehow lightens the load.

The 1992 film plausibly was allowing white audiences to safely vent the same fears that have created the statistical anomalies of less black male sex in films (the first film that ever had a non-white lead in a love scene, where the film made over 100 million domestic, wasn’t until 2015’s Creed) or the easily perceptible pattern of all black people, or black men, dying in a film (I’ve collected close to 200 examples of this. And I’d bet you can’t name a single example of a film in which all white people with a line of dialogue die, if ANYONE else survives). That tribal competition/extinction fear has been responsible for unimaginable and disastrous oppression, and horror films can be a marker for this, just as Godzilla films can be a marker for Japan’s attitude toward the United States. (you hadn’t noticed how Big G started as a metaphor for the atom bomb, went from there to Japan’s protector against other giants, and from there to a clumsy but lovable goofball manipulated by Japanese children? Go back and thumb through ’em. Educational)

The shift in focus, from white to black protagonist, white to black directors and creative staff, and from miscegenation to BLM, is MASSIVE. And if there is one wink at the double-talk used by black people to process their pain into a form acceptable for white audiences, just listen to the reams of artspeak between the bougie critics and managers. Its really amusing as hell. How much intellectual over-processing do you need to create something polite and consumable when what you want is to cram a handful of razor blades down their throats, shake them and say: “See? See how that feels? Why do you keep doing that to yourself?” and hope that the light finally goes on in their eyes.

The story deals with Coleman (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Chicago artist, who seeks a source of inspiration and learns the story of a local “character” called Candyman who haunted the notorious Cabrini Green projects, which have since been gentrified. He was killed by police for putting razors in children’s candy (a false charge). Coleman’s artistic explorations seem to revive a ghostly presence acting out the familiar hooked horrors. But in and around the story of him and his art curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), and the slide into madness and body horror, there are increasing glimmers of a very specific point of view it would be unfair to discuss directly.

We’ll just say that this one is NOT for ‘the white gaze,’ although it is beautiful, frightening, and well done enough that it deserves wide success. This is horror with something on its mind, and by the end, you know exactly what that is.

I waited to write this until I had a chance to see it with its core audience, at the Baldwin Hills cinemas. Audience responses were just great, as I expected they’d be in a black neighborhood, where there really is more of a “call and response” reaction to movies, similar to what I’ve seen in rural white theaters. “Is he insane?” drew a big laugh, but there were other comments that were more specific to the underlying concerns that I would be exercising poor taste to repeat. But it was FUNNY.

Laughter, like screaming or orgasm, is a release of tension. And Jordan Peele, executive producer and co-writer (with executive producer Win Rosenfed), has mastered both comedy and horror, and I cannot help but think it is his understanding of that nexus that has been a part of his massive critical and box office success. That, and an uncanny way of centering real social concerns under his horrific images and plot structures. Get Out was about perfect, hitting its target dead center. Us was more sprawling, a larger canvas, and if not as “perfect” an integration of thematics and structure, displayed massive ambition and talent, perhaps more than was on display in Get Out, but spread thinner, with a few gaps. Lovecraft Country, Twilight Zone, and other efforts have also demonstrated that the amazing grace he brought to those films is difficult to reproduce: it is easy to slide into pulpiness or didactic overstatement. Politics over philosophy, if you will. Certainly over entertainment, at times. And Candyman might well be considered more successful than any other effort he did not personally shepherd, with DaCosta bringing a visual grace beyond his own, if the thematics are messier.

What DaCosta fashioned here is a genuine artistic expression, a scream of primal rage filtered into a mass entertainment. And if there are mis-steps, you have to grasp how thin the row of predecessors is. This new Black Horror isn’t just using NEW tropes, it is using formerly FORBIDDEN tropes. Few people have ever been able to take a genre film where this one goes. And by the very last image it has broken new territory for audiences and film-makers. There will be some who cannot go for the journey, and others who take the trip and hate it. But there is REAL talent, intelligence, and passion on display, with enough humor to stop you from popping out into one of those “its only a movie” safe spaces.

It is first and foremost a scarefest, but I remember a statement from my good lady wife, Horror Queen Tananarive Due: “Black history IS black horror.” The trick is to drain off enough of the pain that both black and white people can even look at it without needing to lie or turn away and throw up. We HAVE TO to build a future for our children. And storytelling, at its best, helps us do exactly that.

Candyman isn’t perfect. But it is EXCELLENT, and powerful, and beautifully executed, and relevant, and courageous, and I think deeply personal to the creators. This was no cash-grab.

As I said… while it has politics, it has something a good deal more important. It has a philosophy. And that makes it dangerous AF.

(For more context about black horror, you might want to check out SUNKENPLACECLASS.COM, the online version of Tananarive’s famous UCLA experience. You won’t be disappointed!)

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