REVIEW: Candyman [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 91 minutes
    Release Date: August 27th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures
    Director(s): Nia DaCosta
    Writer(s): Jordan Peele & Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta / Bernard Rose (1992 film Candyman) / Clive Barker (characters)

He found me.

Despite its earned cult classic status, Bernard Rose‘s Candyman isn’t without fault. His decision to move Clive Barker‘s short story “The Forbidden” from a British neighborhood to Chicago’s Cabrini–Green projects to deal with the racial divide as well as the economical one in the text was as inspired as casting Tony Todd for his titular bee-infested boogeyman running on the fuel of a hive mind’s fear. Yet he still centered it all on a white savior’s shoulders in Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen). Rose flirts with the complexity of that choice by having her first act of heroism (being the key witness to putting a copycat monster behind bars) unleash the real monster from hibernation, but ultimately undercuts Candyman’s return as cautionary tale for white supremacy’s unchecked brutality.

The marketing machine can say Nia DaCosta‘s Candyman (co-written by producer Jordan Peele and Win Rosefeld) is a “spiritual sequel” all it wants, but you should know that bit of deflection is more about their decision to re-center the tale on the Black experience rather than insufficient connective tissue to the past. Narratively speaking, you shouldn’t watch this film without already having seen the original. DaCosta and company do a great job sprinkling in flashbacks via shadow play, but they don’t rehash the conclusion (SPOILER WARNING FOR THE FIRST FILM): that Helen becomes Candyman in the end. That whole film is about a ghost proving itself to be a living, breathing warning about America’s violence towards Black men and women, but it closes with a white woman taking the mantle.

You should therefore consider this new iteration a reclamation project for that unfortunate muddying of the message—one Rose created since Barker’s story provides no second chances. And it proves the perfect segue once you realize what places like Cabrini-Green are in the grand scheme of things. They are areas built to fail in order for gentrification to take over on the cheap. Affluent areas surround and choke them until they can be cannibalized, re-packaged, and re-sold much like Helen’s own apartment in the first film. While the high-rise Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) lived in with her toddler might be gone so the likes of art world rising stars Brianna (Teyonah Parris) and Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) can move in, however, its shadow still looms large.

No matter how long it’s been since the last “Candyman” sighting or murder, a name and legacy like that never fully disappears. Whether it’s Daniel Robitaille’s (Todd) victim of a father’s wrath after conceiving a child with the man’s white daughter during the 1800s or the story Burke (Colman Domingo) tells Anthony about creepy old Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove) handing out candy with a smile before getting trampled by an entire precinct of white cops, the memory of those Black kids and adults who’ve perished under oppression’s boot (because Cabrini-Green is a symptom of a much larger, systemic issue) endures. Unlike word-of-mouth, though, Anthony creating a gallery piece that dares affluent onlookers to “Say His Name” spreads it like wildfire. Especially once a grisly murder follows closely behind.

The white community that took Cabrini-Green as their own now unwittingly take Candyman’s bloodlust too. They are the ones who die this time around. They are the ones who pay for the sins of their forefathers. And rather than hinge on a premise predicated on his framing Helen into becoming his victim to ensure media attention, Candyman need only to bring his hook. Because while entitled brats like Heidi Grace Engerman‘s Haley smirk in the mirror before summoning their demise, not one Black character is dumb enough to play with yet another potential cause of death. Not Brianna. Not her brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett). Not … well, Anthony can’t resist. From finding artistic inspiration in the danger to becoming a conduit of souls, he falls through the mirror.

The filmmakers utilize Rose’s intent with Barker’s story and run with it to find its most terrifying, resonate, and scathing conclusion. DaCosta and cinematographer John Guleserian play with reflections in ways that guarantee almost every scene is in part viewed through one and an extra level of sinister flourish by having bees knock into the glass from the other side. There are some unforgettable kills I can only compare to the high concept sequences from The Invisible Man as physical punishment comes by the non-existent hand of a predator only seen through the glare of surrounding surfaces. And even then, few of the deaths are witnessed on-screen. DaCosta expertly shields us with aesthetically angled obstructions so the fear of those watching can deliver everything we need to know.

Why? Because they’re the goal. Candyman has never been about its victims. It’s about the survivors. They’re the ones who keep his name alive as a means to tell their children about what lurks in the shadows. You either heed that warning and refuse to even joke about saying his name in the mirror once (let alone five times) or you risk it all for fun. That is the definition of privilege—to laugh about that which has left bodies in the streets knowing the color of your skin or the money in your wallet or the neighborhood where you live will keep you safe. Take the metaphor of Cabrini-Green one step further as America itself and understand that no plot of land is without its ghosts.

We’re a nation built on the blood of the slaughtered. We can paint walls, jack up prices, and absolve ourselves of the guilt inherent to that truth, but their presence remains. The more land stolen, the less safe its thieves become from the demons they thought only preyed upon the “other” far from view. The first Candyman showed anyone can be caught up in the carnage to wreak vengeance on their oppressors (Rose’s film ultimately deals more with patriarchy than racism). This one shows how the oppressors have become too comfortable on their perch to realize the tides have changed. Hubris has entered the equation. Where Brianna looks down a dark stairway and says, “Nope!” before turning back, Haley jumps because no one taught her to be afraid.

[1] Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. Copyright © 2020 Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures. All Rights Reserved. CANDYMAN TM MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM. Teyonah Parris as Brianna Cartwright in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. Copyright © 2021 Universal Studios and MGM. All Rights Reserved. CANDYMAN is TM and C MGM. All Rights Reserved.
[3] Parrish Lewis/Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures. (from left) Troy Cartwright (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Grady Greenberg (Kyle Kaminsky) in Candyman, directed by Nia DaCosta. Copyright © 2020 Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures. All Rights Reserved. CANDYMAN TM MGM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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