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How Hollywood attempts and mostly fails to co-opt black pain exhibited in black horror films
By Sampira Al-Fihri
Candyman, a film first screened in 1992, was an adaptation of Clive Barker’s short story, ‘The Forbidden’. The film centres on an inner-city community in Chicago, neglected by the city, and a piece of folklore imprinted on the imagination of every single resident of the inner-city projects. Candyman is a mythical figure who is summoned by saying his name out loud five times. In the original film, we first see Candyman through the eyes of Helen Lyle, a researcher whom Candyman becomes captivated by.
At the helm of the latest iteration of Candyman, Nia Dacosta has become the first Black female director to have a film debut at number 1 in the US charts. Although this reflects a historical landmark, Nia Dacosta has been very honest about the way she was treated on the set of her film and on her other projects. It’s important to interrogate the way that the press chose to highlight the film’s producer, Jordan Peele, first and foremost, rather than, as is normal, to prioritise the director. That attitude directly informs the elements and perspectives in films that centre on Blackness or interrogate Black issues.
Nia Dacosta’s Candyman hits out at many targets. It’s rare that people want films to be longer, but I would have happily watched even more from the residents of Cabrini-Green (the Chicago housing project which is the setting for the story) and their elusive, visceral mythological phenomenon.
Dacosta interrogates issues such as gentrification, racism, police brutality and generational trauma. Her choice to convey this through Anthony (Yayha Abdul-Mateen II), a protagonist who’s an artist, is very clever. There is a parallel between the appropriation of Black pain and how it manifests in artistic spaces. The theme of the ‘tortured’ or ‘starving’ artist has a long history, and the establishment has profited from the work of many artists who link their art to their lived experiences, seeking to channel the darkness of their lives, and people like them. Even long after death, the fascination with such artists, unsupported in their lifetime, resonates today. Dacosta highlights this through Anthony and his relationship to art which draws out questions on the ethics of the art space, and any entertainment space in general. Not to spoil too much, but in the film the art critic, Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence) only engages with Anthony’s work once people start being killed by Candyman whose conjuring is the centrepiece of Anthony’s art. It signifies that Black art, and other marginalised art, may not be seen as valuable until there is some sort of pain or controversy which can be commodified.
Anthony’s journey to try to find his next piece is inspired by Troy, the brother of his lover, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). He sits down with Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarret) and they are told the story of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Helen was a researcher looking into the legend of the Candyman and became one of his victims. She ended up fighting him off whilst saving a baby from him and dying in a blaze of flames alongside Candyman. Hearing this, Anthony becomes fascinated and immerses himself into the turmoil of the residents of Cabrini-Green. He soon learns that Helen Lyle has been a scapegoat, to suppress the shocking truth about the reality of Candyman.
In the original film, issues such as racism, mainstream society’s irrational fear of minorities, specifically Black people, and the neglect of inner-city communities are explored through the magnetic figure of Candyman (Tony Todd). Dacosta goes further in her new version, wrestling with the possibility that there may be a need for a Candyman. He is a twisted protector within the community; everybody knows him. He becomes a channel for the pain that the community goes through at the hands of the police, governmental neglect and demonisation. Candyman is a manifestation of the way that hip hop, film, and any other art forms often become a channel for marginalised people to reckon with their existence and speak to those who are going through the same experiences.
But it cannot be overlooked that in the original film there are disturbing scenes of Candyman killing predominantly Black people, even though they are not the people historically who harmed him. Dacosta subverts this; the majority of deaths in her film are among the white characters.
There is something spiritual in the desire for certain residents of Cabrini-Green to invoke Candyman yet again. More antihero than superhero, Candyman is born out of pain and injustice. There have been many ghosts attached to Candyman and through him they enact violence on anyone who dares to say his name. We learn that Candyman and the people behind him have been enveloped in his mystique. They had their whole lives snuffed out because of racism and white supremacy. The film also critiques the media for its reporting of victims of police brutality and racially motivated attacks. The victims transcend merely being people with real lives; they are ghosts, symbols of societal failings and hatred. The dehumanisation from the media is echoed in the vengeful brutality of Candyman.
Dacosta reinforces this with her choice of name for Anthony’s lover, Brianna. Whether intentional or not, it conjures Breonna Taylor who was killed by US police in 2020. The framing of the invoking of Candyman by saying his name out loud, and Anthony’s defiant daring of characters to say it, take on added significance in the light of everything that has happened in the past 10 years. Dacosta navigates this in an earnest way, as much as she can perhaps, whilst dealing with Hollywood’s corporate system. Although I longed for more film time, or a streamlining to look at two or three issues in depth, Dacosta’s approach stands as an example of how to navigate those spaces, even though I question the compromises she had to make with this film. At times, for instance, the issues around police brutality, racism, and gentrification are sped through.
In some ways, Dacosta makes up for this with her portrayal of the inner city. In deep contrast to the high-rise skyline of Chicago, the houses on the outskirts are diminutive, reflecting society’s disregard for their inhabitants. Her portrayal of the Black protagonists circles around their conflict about being accepted into a white cultural system that profits from them. There could have been a whole film on just that. There is lots to unpack in this film and the issues raised are so complex. The range of Candyman’s universe is greatly constricted by Hollywood; its interrogation of that universe will never be as in-depth or radical as is possible in an independent film.
Nevertheless, as I left the cinema, seeing both Yayha’s and Tony Todd’s portrayals of Candyman, reconciling the old with the new, I walked the streets of Birmingham back home, with an elevated step. Candyman, in his new purpose for the community of Cabrini-Green, and in a departure from the original, has his hand on your shoulder, for just a while longer, as you leave him on the screen and go back into the world. He walks side by side with you for a short time, and then disappears into the back of your mind, as you remember the world we are in and your place in it. But you also remember, as a human being, as an artist, that your defiance is in your existence. Your hands are worthy to carve out a narrative that is different, your ability to stand up for justice is intense. As you remember Candyman’s hooked hand, you may remember, that if you are alive, you can push to change the world.