At one point in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman struggling artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is shown picking at a scab on his hand. Stung by a bee while visiting the Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago, the bite has caused an infection that is slowly moving up his arm. As Anthony attempts to pull off a small piece of the crackled skin, he winces in pain and quickly realizes he cannot remove it all. The scab runs much longer than he thought.
In a perverse way the scene encapsulates Candyman itself. DaCosta’s film attempts to pick at the crust of a gentrified America only to reveal raw sores that are too vast to easily heal. Dipping its heavy-handed brush into the colours of injustice, the film paints a messy portrait of generational trauma that is equally intriguing and too sprawling for its own canvass.
A direct sequel to Bernard Rose’s original 1992 film of the same name, this version tackles similar themes to its predecessor but from a different lens. Rather than showing racism and gentrification from viewpoint of a white graduate student, DaCosta uses Anthony to guide viewers into a world that he himself is not too familiar with. Once considered “the great Black hope” of the Chicago art scene, the artist has been stuck in a creative rut. His previous works, which received raves for its focused on the brutality of Black men, are now considered cliched by a predominantly white art world uninterested in historical sins. It is only when Troy (Nathan Steward-Jarrett), the brother of his art-curator girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), tells him the legend of Candyman – a broken telephone version that is not only directly linked to the 1992 film, but also places its protagonist Helen Lyle as the central killer with a hook – that Anthony becomes interested in exploring the history of Cabrini-Green.
It is here where DaCosta’s work begins to forge its own wobbly path. One that both has ties to Rose’s film while simultaneously reclaiming the lore of Candyman from a Black perspective. Once a menacing and complex villain, DaCosta turns the hook wielding icon into an anti-hero of sorts by reshaping the character’s purpose. In this incarnation Candyman is not simply a painter who fell in love with a white woman, only to be beaten and mutilated by the villagers after being falsely accused of rape, but rather the ghostly embodiment of all the Black lives taken unjustly.
One of these unfortunate souls is Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a resident of Cabrini-Green in the late 70’s who gave out candy to the kids he came across. However, when a white girl finds a razor blade in her candy, he becomes the main suspect in the police’s eyes. Forced to go into hiding, the sight of him emerging out of a hole in the wall is a chilling callback to the original film, Sherman is beaten beyond recognition when the police eventually find him.
The obvious parallels to Emmett Till aside, the drum of symbolism that DaCosta and co-writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld beat is not a subtle one, Sherman’s death is used both to highlight the pain that still weighs heavy on the hearts of individuals like local residents and laundromat owner William (Colman Domingo) and serves as the catalyst for Anthony’s latest art show. However, not fully understanding the gravitas of the community or mythology his work is depicting, Anthony inadvertently wakes the sleeping giant through one of his pieces that encourages the viewer to “say his name”.
While the way DaCosta’s film reappropriates the #SayHerName movement never sits right, it does allow for a few moments of levity in the brooding film as several white characters jokingly say Candyman five times while the Black characters know better than to tempt fate. As Anthony becomes more obsessed with depicting Black pain through his art, Candyman openly ponders how Black art is interpreted and exploited. As if wresting with her own film’s place in this discourse, DaCosta questions both the responsibility that Black artists carry when presenting trauma as a commodity and the ways in which white society takes from Black culture without caring about the people.
Interestingly, it is when DaCosta is focusing more on her own artistic craft, and less on trying to make a statement, that Candyman is most captivating. By making Candyman less of a physical monster, DaCosta finds several engaging ways to use reflections, including the mirror in a compact makeup case, and various doorway framings to convey a ghostly and claustrophobic sense of dread. This coupled with the atmosphere that surrounds the film, city skyscrapers are shown upside down with the tops cloaked in fog, and the once lively Cabrini-Green neighbourhood is presented like a ghost town slowly being consumed by the gentrified city around it, make the spaces Anthony travels in feel eerie and small.
The sense of intimacy and terror are best executed when the film brilliantly incorporates silhouettes to document the numerous Black lives lost. In its puppet show style presentation, the silhouettes lure one into observing countless atrocities while skillfully making it almost impossible for the viewer to look away. These sequences also provide the film an opportunity to reconnect with several key plot points from the original film.
As far as bridging the gap with existing lore, DaCosta and crew do an admirable job of making their film fit in nicely for the first half. The film really struggles to connect the numerous dots it has plotted out in its final act. Rather than take the time needed to properly establish the superhero-esque mythos the film creates, DaCosta opts to cram a lot of expository dialogue into final twenty minutes of its brisk hour and a half running time. A longer cut of the film would have allowed for further exploration of the avenger rising arc, not to mention Brianna’s trauma stemming from her artistic father’s suicide, without it feeling so tacked on.
Despite its problematic finale, there are enough elements that make DaCosta’s film a worthy entry into the Candyman franchise. Featuring plenty of nods to the original, including bringing back Vanessa Williams’ Anne-Marie McCoy, the film never feels like it is simply replaying the same identical notes, but rather roughly working its way through its own tune. Finding visually inventive ways to present its chills, while still making one reflect on the legacy of trauma, DaCosta’s film maintains one’s interest even in its messy moments.