Culture

‘Candyman’ Fails To Turn An Urban Legend Into A Racial Justice Guardian [Review]

Candyman is a film grasping for a sense of social and moral rightness that alienates itself from the original 1992 movie. As a result, it tries — and fails — to make a tragic gothic figure into a guardian for contemporary racial justice.

In the nearly 30 years since its release, Bernard Rose’s 1992 gothic horror film Candyman has only grown in relevance. Based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” the film follows Helen (Virginia Madsen), a white graduate student doing her thesis on urban legends. When Helen hears a story about the fabled Candyman — the vengeful spirit of a Black man who was brutally murdered for falling for a white woman in the late 1800s — she begins investigating the figure, destroying her life in the process. Before his death, Candyman was a skilled painter named Daniel Robitaille, whose talents afforded him a certain level of respect and affluence in white society. Unfortunately, no level of personal success has the power to overcome the brutal realities of racism. Once he gets his white lover pregnant, his demise is inevitable. 

In Barker’s original story, Candyman’s race was never specified. But Rose’s film — which stars Tony Todd as the titular figure — expands on the short story, focusing on the parallels between past and present race relations in America. Candyman is drawn to Helen because of her whiteness and resemblance to his former lover. Their interactions play out as a form of seduction, as Candyman draws her in by eroding her protected status as a white woman. Throughout the course of the film, Helen loses nearly all of her social and academic power, eventually succumbing to Candyman as her belief in him grows stronger. As Candyman, Todd uses his raspy, resonant voice to create the sexual allure of a vampire. Regal both in dress and stature, Todd channels William Marshall’s legendary performance as Blacula. But instead of sharp fangs, he wields a threatening hook hand that suggests a more primal form of penetration. 

This raw sexual energy is missing from Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a film curiously lacking in texture and sensuality. DaCosta’s Candyman serves as a direct sequel to the original, bypassing the two lesser Candyman sequels — Farewell to the Flesh and Day of the Dead — to tell a more personal, cohesive narrative. This new story follows Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), a troubled painter struggling through a creative dry spell. This complicates his relationship with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), a gallery director trying to prove herself in the Chicago art world. She’s gotten him a spot in her upcoming show and Anthony is buckling under the pressure. Desperate for inspiration, he becomes obsessed with the Candyman legend and the Chicago housing project where it was born, Cabrini-Green. There he meets William (Colman Domingo), a mysterious man with an extensive understanding of the figure. Soon, Anthony begins to change, the Candyman’s power taking hold of him.

As Anthony transforms, Brianna is forced to confront the tragic death of her father, another troubled artist who lost his grip on reality. In a flashback, we see a young Brianna watch in horror as her father takes his own life. This should be a powerful scene, but its placement in the film is awkward and gestures to emotional depth it is incapable of honoring. To be frank, it appears as though DaCosta’s film was hacked to pieces in the editing room, with Brianna bearing the brunt of the narrative and thematic chaos. As a result, Parris is saddled with a character so remote that it’s nearly impossible for us to understand who she is as a person. Brianna is racially conscious one second and indifferent to racial violence the next. She laments about the evil of gentrification while dismissing the visceral pain and ancestral trauma present in Anthony’s increasingly haunting paintings. Her brother Troy, played with impressive comedic timing by British actor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, seems even less interested in the very real racial conditions that influence Anthony’s work and fuel his madness. 

The thrust of this film seems to be the gentrification of Black stories, repurposed to pander to a white gaze. The curious thing about this approach is that the 1992 film — and the story its based on — is authored by a white man, with the movie’s gaze being explicitly white. Acknowledging this truth is not a knock on the original. On the contrary, it factors heavily into what makes the film messy in several fascinating ways. This is a story about a Black man wronged by white people who enacts his revenge by terrorizing his own people from beyond the grave. Candyman is not a force for justice — he is a wronged man consumed by his own heartbreak, rage, and sexual appetites. His pursuit of Helen is explicitly erotic and his desire for her is tethered to her whiteness. 

Robbing such a deeply sexual story of its eroticism is a curious choice that has DaCosta’s film grasping for a sense of social and moral rightness that alienates itself from the original. And what we are left with is a film that tries to make a tragic gothic figure into a guardian for contemporary racial justice. For that reason, Candyman inherently invites comparison to not only the original, but all of the Black films made in the wake of Ferguson as a result of the renewed cultural and political conversations regarding Black people in America. And despite Jordan Peele’s involvement as co-writer and producer, Candyman is less in line with his brilliant, history-making Get Out, and more on par with Justin Simien’s misguided Bad Hair.

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures

This is made all the more frustrating by the elements of the film that actually do work. DaCosta, who made her feature directorial debut in 2018 with the intimate crime drama Little Woods, knows how to frame her actors. The gaze on her characters remains empathetic throughout, hinting at a more emotionally rich film that was left somewhere on the cutting room floor. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the original cut of the film had more focus on the relationship between Anthony and Brianna. In the back half of the film we are treated to more of her perspective, and we feel her heartbreak as she watches the man she loves become consumed by anger and sorrow. There is nothing Brianna can do for Anthony, and that futility is devastating. Robert A. A. Lowe’s engrossing score enhances these few, genuine moments of drama.

Candyman is a film hampered by a truncated runtime, uneven storytelling, and visual gloss that heavily suggests studio meddling. It’s a small miracle then that the film still manages to hold on to its most creative conceit: the use of shadow puppetry to depict racial violence in a way that gives us reprieve from the explicit, cheap brutality that hampers lesser genre efforts like Antebellum and Amazon’s ill-conceived limited series Them. The simplicity in style and speed of the puppetry reminds us of the cyclical nature of violence through history. We know who is enacting this savagery, and we know who suffers from it. If only the flesh-and-blood characters in Candyman were just as compelling.

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Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.

Jourdain Searles

Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave.

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