In Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”, the precursor to Nia DaCosta’s precursor directed by Jordan Peele candy manan academic named Helen becomes obsessed with capturing the grim conditions of the Spector Street estate, a British slum scarred by the malignant smell of urine, burnt plastic and graffiti – an area “unmistakably foreign, sealed in his own misery”.
The class is the spectrum, or the other specter, haunting Barker’s story, part of a collection he wrote and known as books of blood in 1984 and 1985. Helen is a nosy upper-order student, harassing her teacher boyfriend in a restaurant between trips to the estate, snapping photos of the decrepit state of the slum and asking residents about the recent spate of deaths on his land. She marvels at the stories the locals tell about the mysterious figure behind the murders, the Candyman. Like others before her, she ends up falling victim to the domain and, ultimately, Candyman’s lure.
The core elements of the thriller remained in place as it moved from the pen of Barker in 1985 to the camera of Bernard Rose in 1992 and finally to the camera of DaCosta today. The social hierarchy is always in the background, a history of class in general which has become, on American soil, a history of race in particular. But something else emerged in the transition. Barker’s story and Rose’s film—which shifted the setting to Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project—were told from the perspective of candlelight strangers, the people to whom the slums are “unmistakably alien.” The horror played on their anxieties vis-à-vis the world of their social inferiors. But the animating anxieties of DaCosta’s film belong to its ascendant, mobile black characters, whose relationship to Cabrini-Green is a bit more complicated. The horror is now generated by the fears of complicity in violence and dispossession that created Candyman in the first place and recreates him again.
In Rose’s adaptation, Helen Lyle, an academic played by Virginia Madsen, becomes passionate about the horrific conditions that plague black families in Cabrini-Green, who are threatened by a black killer. Helen, aware of her place in the hierarchy, does not want to be seen as an exploiter. The class elements of Barker’s Liverpool become readable as racism in the context of Rose’s Chicago. Rose said he wanted to tap into the “fear of the urban public housing project”, which he considered “totally irrational”, expressed by those who avoided Chicago’s Cabrini-Green altogether. His candy man, in many ways, was a social critique of the white terrors surrounding race and poverty in American cities, the superstitions generated by these terrors. “It’s a kind of fear that’s at the heart of modern cities, and obviously it’s race-driven, but more than that, it’s poverty-driven,” Rose said in a 2015 interview.
In DaCosta’s film, co-written by Jordan Peele, the Candyman legend is carved from the deaths of black men before him – the black painter, Daniel Robitaille, killed in the late 1800s for impregnating a woman White ; the poor man named Sherman Fields, who was wrongly accused of putting razor blades in the candy he gave out to children and was later beaten to death by the cops. The Candyman legend is formed, forgotten and reformed over the years, the embodiment and in a way the avenger of intergenerational trauma.
Above all stands the remembrance of Cabrini-Green, whose last skyscraper was demolished in 2011. Once a national shorthand for racist nightmares inspired by urban social housing, Cabrini-Green is now a symbol of displacement and gentrification, and DaCosta puts it to good use in her Candyman. Anthony McCoy, the black artist at the center of the film, struggles to navigate the discomfort of his own identity in a predominantly white art world, which has thrived on the destruction of the neighborhood. He is uncomfortable in his place.
Inside his luxury loft on the lot where Cabrini-Green once stood, McCoy, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and his partner Brianna, played by Teyonah Parris, listen to Brianna’s brother recount the legend of Candyman and the story of Helen Lyle. At one point, while discussing the changes surrounding Cabrini-Green, Brianna remarks, “White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto. McCoy’s response? “Everywhere is haunted.”
Yet McCoy and Brianna live in a high-rise building where the Cabrini-Green towers once stood. They have to struggle with the fact that they too have benefited from gentrification. McCoy becomes enthralled with the history of the grounds around him and the legend of Candyman, especially after meeting longtime Cabrini–Green resident Burke, played by Colman Domingo. It ends up consuming him like it did Helen.
McCoy is considered one of the city’s up-and-coming artists—the white art dealer who backs McCoy’s gallery installation earns him the cringe-worthy epithet of “Chicago’s Great Black Hope.” But when McCoy describes his intent behind the installation – to illuminate how “white supremacy creates spaces of rampant neglect for communities of color” – and mentions Bronzeville, Chicago’s famous “black metropolis”, the white art dealer retorts that the “South Side is playing out,” as if black life in Chicago was nothing more than a passing art fad. McCoy, indulging his curiosity, decides to feature Cabrini-Green and Candyman instead , like a portrait of black suffering. On one wall, a noose captures the neck of a mysterious figure. On another, a mirror compels viewers to see themselves; looking behind the mirror, they see the first works of McCoy’s exhibit is titled ‘Say His Name’, evoking both the legend of Candyman (he is summoned when people say his name five times in front of a mirror) and the campaigns against police brutality that took their lives to Breonna Taylor and so many others.
McCoy may be exposing the trauma of white supremacy, but he’s doing it for a mostly white audience in a gallery near the loft atop the Cabrini-Green lot. He’s kind of an afterthought prop, perpetuating the trauma even as he tries to honor it. White viewers – the film critic, the art dealer, the gallery goers – exploit McCoy’s black art, his depictions of black suffering, for personal balm. McCoy, as an up-and-coming artist, is forced to operate in a privileged, predominantly white space to seek recognition. As it unfolds during his film, so does his art. “Everyone in the movie has this kind of base pain, this hurt,” DaCosta said. vanity lounge. “And everything they do throughout the movie is their way of trying to heal him, to varying and disastrous degrees.”
If the horrors of the 1992 film played on the fears and preconceptions of white people entering an impoverished black space, DaCosta candy man plays on the internal anxieties black people face while navigating a white world. (Oh, a rising black artist wrestles with the moral dilemmas of offering black pain for the enjoyment of a predominantly white audience? We see and hear you, Jordan Peele.) When McCoy meets the critic of art in his loft, the White Woman, played by Rebecca Spence, tells him that his installation seemed “eternal”. She only takes a clear interest in her work after a series of murders related to her installation. She then suggests that artists were the first gentrifiers. “Who do you think made the hood?” asks McCoy, questioning his premise that the residents themselves create the conditions for a gentrified city. “The city cuts off a community and waits for it to die. Then they invite the developers and say, “Hey, you artists, you young people, you white people [people]… please come into the hood. It’s cheap and if you wait a few years we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.
Aside from McCoy, black characters actively avoid saying Candyman’s name—at one point, one character jokes that “black people don’t need to summon shit”. When McCoy discusses his past with his mother, she silences him as he begins to talk about the monster. At the same time, white characters—the art dealer and his intern, the film critic, a group of teenagers in the girls’ bathroom—exude an uncanny willingness to invoke a figure black people fear because they doubt the legend. So when Candyman kills, he mostly kills white characters – an apparent act of revenge on the historical trauma white people have inflicted on communities of color.
In the final moments of the film, as McCoy’s partner Brianna holds a sick McCoy in her arms inside an abandoned building in Cabrini-Green, the cops burst in and kill McCoy. The officers drag a handcuffed Brianna to the back of a police cruiser as one of them tries to convince her to say that McCoy threatened the cops. That’s not what happened, of course – a familiar mismatch the nation has encountered time and time again. Under duress, Brianna looks in the driver’s side mirror and invokes Candyman’s name five times: the white officers around her are slashed, their blood spattered everywhere, but she stays alive to tell Candyman’s story.
Is Candyman a recovery from black suffering or a true terror for all? At the end of the film, his acts of revenge and the logic behind them are complicated by a flashback. In a bathroom of his Cabrini-Green apartment, a young Burke witnesses his sister killed after saying Candyman’s name five times, ending the idea that he is a righteous black avenger of historical white wrongs. Even Candyman, it seems, can be complicit.