“Be My Victim”: Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’ and The Insidious History of Racism In the United States
Editors’ Note: Candyman spoilers ahead.
Nia DaCosta’s Candyman has been described as a rethinking of the original movie directed by Bernard Rose in 1992. But the truth is DaCosta’s picture is a direct sequel. DaCosta has crafted something special which expands on the lore of the first movie and walks backward through time to expose the historic and current brutalizations of Black men in the United States through the mythic potential of the horror movie.
The first Candyman is based on an original short story by British author Clive Barker, published in 1985 as part of a collection of short stories called The Books of Blood. Barker’s original story focused on the class inequalities within an unnamed city in England. At the time, Barker was writing about government funding cuts to local councils that had created huge wealth inequality within urban areas and segregated areas by class. With this horrific fable, Barker created a social commentary on the disastrous outcomes that lay waiting for thousands across the United Kingdom.
Barry Rose’s Candyman
There are threads from Barker’s original story in the 1992 feature. In Rose’s movie, young Ph.D. students Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are writing a thesis on urban legends. Their investigations lead them to Cabrini Green, a notorious housing project in Chicago, where they discover the legend of Candyman (Tony Todd). He is a figure who appears in the mirror once you say his name five times. This subtle riff on the Bloody Mary legend has a hook for a hand and murders his victims by slashing them to death.
The two women then discover that Candyman was David Robitaille, the son of a slave whose father had developed shoe-making technologies which he sold to earn his wealth. Robitaille was a painter who worked with the upper-class white elites of Chicago. He eventually came to paint for the Sullivan family and fell in love with and impregnated their white daughter, Caroline. Upon learning of this Sullivan’s father, enraged by his racist anger, tortured and killed Robitaille. Sullivan and his band of racists cut off Robitaille’s hand and smeared him with honey as he died in pain. His murder occurred in the 1890s, decades after the Civil War, which points to the ongoing racism that continues to this day in the United States.
Upon learning about the legend, Helen says his name in front of the mirror. The Candyman appears to her and his murderous quest begins. He stalks Helen, murders Bernadette, and kidnaps a child, all before being burned in the pyres of a bonfire set up by the residents of Cabrini Green. Helen then dies saving the life of the baby.
The first Candyman movie highlights the subtextual themes centered around race at the core of the picture. Helen is a beautiful white woman and Candyman is a Black man. The trope of the Black man who stalks a white lady to sexually devour her ‘innocence’ or to cause her actual bodily harm is a decades-old racist myth. The notion of creating a story in which a white woman is stalked by a Black man was problematic to the filmmakers of the 1992 movie. So they consulted with Black social leaders and organizations like the NAACP to seek advice on developing the story.
A History of Racism
The horrifying stereotype of atavistic Black men seeking to rape white women dates back to DW Griffith’s racist propaganda, Birth of a Nation. In the film, a plague of Black men descends on the American South to rape white women and take away their virginal innocence. In Griffith’s eyes, only the Ku Klux Klan and true godliness can save white women from Black people. Birth of a Nation was also the first movie to be shown at the White House, which illustrates just how deeply rooted racism was, and still is, in the United States.
Despite the film’s overtly racist themes and history, it’s still viewed by many film scholars as an eponymous piece of cinematic history. In 2013, Richard Brody’s review from The New Yorker had the headline: ‘The worst thing about Birth of a Nation is how Good it is’. Whilst Brody’s appraisal of the movie includes some nuance, he credits the movie with actually being virtuous because of its portrayal of Black men. The lineage of Birth of a Nation is one of hate, murder, and violence. It is not a piece of art that should be lauded. Yet the examples I have mentioned illustrate how pervasive anti-Blackness is within popular culture and a white-dominated field of academia and study.
It’s upsetting that such a grotesque movie would be seen as something to compliment. I wonder if Emmett Till’s mother would have been as flippant when discussing such a movie.
Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who lived in Chicago (ironically the setting for Candyman). He traveled to Mississippi in August 1955 to visit his family. While there, a white lady named Carolyn Bryant accused Till of whistling at or catcalling her. Bryant’s husband and half-brother proceeded to torture and kill the young boy. These men shot Till in the head and wrapped barbed wire around his neck before dumping him in the Tallahatchie River. They were both acquitted. Bryant would later admit she lied about the incident.
Birth of a Nation and the murder of Till are just two specific examples of the history of oppression against Black men. This context is incredibly important in any consideration of the first Candyman movie, particularly in how it relates to stereotypes and fundamentalism which are then actualized via actual physical violence. Racism here is an abstract concept because it is the main divisive factor both within the understanding of racism by white people and the actualities of racism faced by Black people via verbal abuse, microaggressions, and murder.
As Helen starts her investigation, she isn’t aware of the people behind the urban legends she is investigating. Whilst some commentators criticize her character as a ‘white savior,’ that isn’t Helen’s problem. Helen only understands racism as an abstract concept, until it is brought into the physical realm by a monster created out of the ashes of racist violence.
The first movie’s most powerful message is about the nature of racism. Like a chimera or virus, it cannot be contained and will eventually mutate into something that is destructive not only for Black people but for the entire world. A civil war brought about by racism almost destroyed The United States. The attacks on the Capitol Building in Washington DC were influenced by the teachings and tenets of white supremacist culture. In both of these instances it is white people who suffer because, like Helen, they have failed to acknowledge racism outside of themselves until it can no longer be suppressed. The terrifying monster is now no longer behind the mirrors of academia or discussion. It has now spilled out into the world and no one is safe.
This idea is what the figure of Candyman represents. He is not a figure from a revenge movie; he is the personification of unstoppable racist terror and death. Until the scourge of racism is properly understood and destroyed, the name and figure cannot be defeated.
Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman’
This brings us to Nia DaCosta’s Candyman. The new movie is as much in sync with the lesser Candyman sequels as it is as a new movie. The underrated yet flawed 1995 sequel Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh focuses on the plight of Annie Tarrant as she learns that she is a direct descendant of Daniel Robertaille and Caroline. Then, in the diabolically silly 1999 movie Candyman 3: Day of the Dead, it is Annie Tarrant’s daughter who is then the protagonist in the story. These features are relevant when considering the new movie because the newer picture does have a crucial plot twist in the movie that again relates to ancestral connections to the macabre legend of Candyman.
Whilst paying this seemingly subconscious homage to the sequels, DaCosta keeps the focus on Chicago, yet her movie avoids being anachronistic towards the city itself. I would argue this is by design rather than an oversight on her part. This approach also lends itself toward the character development within the movie. DaCosta instead wants her audience to focus solely on the legend of Candyman.
She expands the scope of the myth to speak to generations of Black men who have been murdered, committed suicide because of poverty (a telling reference back to the class politics of Barker’s original story), and mental illness, which is still seen as taboo by some quarters of the Black community. For DaCosta Daniel Robitaille is one of many different representations of how racism creates new specters of death. Candyman is now plural and not alone.
In the 2021 movie, Candyman is again not a revenge figure. He will still murder anyone who says his name five times in a mirror, whether Black or white. The fact he preys on his own community is indicative of the fact that Black people were moved into areas like Cabrini Green to isolate us from society and help foster problems like gun crime and gang violence. Meanwhile, racist elements in the media lie about the nature of Blackness. They continue to use propaganda-like language such as ‘Black-on-Black crime,’ just as DW Griffith did as he watched his movie with the POTUS at the White House in 1915. When Candyman murders black people he becomes a metaphor for these policies and what they represent.
One specific criticism leveled at the movie is that the characters are ‘undeveloped’ and their complexities are sparsely realized. Yet when we compare these new characters to Helen from the first movie, they are symbolically similar to what Madsen’s character represented from the first movie.
The main character Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is an artist who has succeeded in his field thanks to the help from his partner Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). McCoy is a Black artist working in predominantly white spaces. He is affluent, beautiful, and clever, but searching for new inspiration. That’s when he hears about Candyman and what happened to Helen Lyle as told to him by a former resident of Cabrini Green. This story presented to McCoy in the movie is actually a false account of the events which take place in the first movie. Yet McCoy doesn’t question the veracity of it upon hearing the story for the first time. Even after learning about the method used to summon Candyman, McCoy still views the horror and deaths relating to Candyman as something he can monetize for his own gain and prestige in the art world.
In this sense, he is the inverse of Helen from the first movie. Whilst she was naïve about racism beyond the abstract, McCoy is naïve about the monster instead of the racism. We later learn McCoy is from Cabrini Green itself, making him a victim of the old segregated Chicago. But he still doesn’t see the myth of Candyman as anything other than something he can use in his artwork. Like Helen, his naivete eventually leads to his own destruction.
What makes this even more terrifying is the idea that even once Black people have moved into different professions and started to accrue wealth, we must still recognize daily that racism is a permanent feature in our past, present, and future. These characters seem free of such concerns and yet that ultimately leads them back towards the realities of racism and death. We as Black people subconsciously or consciously have to bear the weight of racism and anti-Blackness on our shoulders when we should not have to. It is the saddening subtext to this sequel.
This sequel is more concerned with the legend of Candyman than it is with the characters. This can make the movie seem cluttered as plot twists and revelations are introduced toward the end of the movie. I would argue that, unlike the first movie, the figure of Candyman and the thematic resonance he brings with him is more important to the writers than a deeper focus on character dynamics. Whilst these criticisms have value, my main criticism of the new movie is that it doesn’t reference the trials Black women face within society, which is a rare oversight in such a thoughtful movie.
At the film’s end, we hear the new Candyman recite Tony Todd’s dialogue from the first movie and we see reflected in a police car window all of the iterations of the Candyman in the window. As the movie concludes Tony Todd himself appears and demands that Brianna “tell everyone.” Candyman and the new Candy-men all live in him now. As Black people today are shot by police and young children like Tamir Rice are murdered for carrying a toy gun by police, whilst Black people across the world have to hear racist epithets and our communities are ravaged by segregation in places like Cabrini Green, then Candyman can only become more powerful, just as the scourge of racism becomes more powerful.
The “tell everyone” demand is not just a reference to the fact Candyman believes his malevolent nature is nurtured within the power of his myth. It is also a demand that every audience member understands that as long as racism exists, it will continue to destroy Black lives and eventually the lives of everybody in the vicinity. That is the terrifying idea at the core of these movies. DaCosta has created a horrific fable about the brutal cost of racism within society whilst expanding that theme from the original movie through scale and gravitas.