It’s a common scenario that has played out throughout history: white people become energized, revved up, and openly libidinal in the face of black suffering and death. The scenario, in this case, involves a curator and his nominally alternative assistant, who speaks in Joy Division lyrics and clichés. After hours, they’re in a slick but tinny art gallery somewhere in Chicago’s West Loop, though there’s nothing here to hint at the midwestern setting. She fastens him to her belt. In front of a small mirror, they kiss and grind against each other with sloppy hunger as the gallery’s tranquil lighting flickers between cherry red, icy blue, and the cool gray of projected images. But this isn’t any ordinary mirror. It’s a piece of art by Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) that, when opened, uncovers paintings showing police brutality and lynchings in which Black people are transformed into Black bodies.
The mirror is an invitation to horror and transformation, and all mirrors hold this potential. “Candyman,” she says between kisses, bringing to life the name of an urban legend. She says the name, the invocation, and this spell five times. It is at this point that a figure can be seen in the mirror’s corner. A towering Black man with a hook for a hand and enigmatic features. This supernatural figure slits the woman’s throat with a single stroke seen only through the glass and not in person. “Is this real?” her perplexed partner cries as he grips her body, blood arcing from her jugular.
He tries to avoid the same fate as a killer whose face ripples across reflective surfaces. The scene contains slit throats, concussed heads, ripped tendons, and copious amounts of blood, but it fails to pierce the viewer’s skin. The timing is incorrect. The gore is too deliberately placed to convey the necessary fury. There isn’t any tension, artistry, silken grace, or grimy texture to be found. It’s so gleaming that it’s devoid of features. This scene, like the film it’s in, skims over intriguing ideas — the white desire born of witnessing Black suffering — but never grapples with the total weight of them.
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what went wrong with Candyman, the Nia DaCosta-directed and Jordan Peele-co-written continuation/reimagining of the 1992 film of the same name. The trailers and marketing hyped up the film, with the tagline “Say His Name,” evoking history and collective rage. Before Breonna Taylor’s image appeared on glossy magazine covers, we said, “Say her name,” supplying fuel to a capitalist system that had betrayed her and her memory
However, as evidenced by the art-gallery scene, this Candyman misunderstands the allure of the original. It has nothing deep to say about the contemporary ideas it observes with the zeal of someone sprinting through a Dunkin donuts order on their way to the office. Candyman is the year’s most disappointing film, highlighting not only the artistic failures of the people who brought it to life but the artistic failures of an entire industry that seeks to commodify Blackness to boost its bottom line.
This Candyman has a contradiction. His power stems from the perpetuation of his legend, which necessitates new kills. But Why would the vindictive spirit of a Black man — Daniel Robitaille, a painter, and son of a domestic servant who fell in love and got a white woman pregnant, and who was then brutalized, his hand lopped off, doused in honey, bitten by bees, and set ablaze — choose to terrorize Black people so savagely? Maybe he’s an equal-opportunity killer, but something about his logic has always gotten to me.
DaCosta, Peele, and their collaborators appear to have attempted to reconcile this contradiction. Candyman 2021 is not just the spirit of Todd’s Daniel Robitaille. Still, an entire legion of Black men murdered viciously by white, state violence, who act as vengeful spirits more eager to harm white people than the Black people whose land their souls have now been linked to. (However, the film contradicts its logic when one of the Candymen murders a dark-skinned Black girl in flashback.)
Instead of a handsome yet brutalizing sole figure disturbing your every move, these Candymen can only be seen in the mirrors used to invoke them, possibly as a spiritual echo to Ralph Ellison’s work. Something is lost in the absence of a figure like Todd, but the concepts are sound; if only the artists involved could figure out what to do with them. It’s an entertainment, with tongues lolling and eyes wide open, rather than a lived experience. Candyman filmmakers are interested in the Black body but not in the soul and mind that envelops it.
Anthony McCoy (a surprisingly scarred Abdul-Mateen) is the poster boy for mainly being marketed as Black excellence. He and his assimilationist art-curator girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), live in the slick high-rises that have replaced Cabrini–Green’s projects. He is starving and desperate for new material. He was once dubbed the “great Black hope of the Chicago art scene,” and he’d like to keep that title.
When Brianna’s brother, Troy (a grating Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), tells him the legend of Helen Lyle — cutouts and darkness that feel more innovative than anything else in the film but are too hastily delivered to fully engage the viewer — Anthony finds himself tumbling down a dark path. He may be an artist, but his life is intertwined with Helen’s. He moves like her, an intruder and anthropologist rummaging through the ruins of other people’s lives. Although William (a twitchy, arch Colman Domingo), whose younger self appears in flashbacks at various points throughout the story, is the only actual poor character you hear from in this story rooted in the Cabrini–Green community.
After being stung by a bee near the Cabrini–Green project site, Anthony’s mind and body begin to unravel as he delves deeper and deeper into Candyman folklore. The sting turns into a wound that oozes and crackles its way up to his arm until he’s covered in stings. If you’ve seen the original, it’s clear long before any “twist” that this isn’t so much a reimagining as it is a remixed continuation. The video occasionally shifts to Brianna’s point of view as she deals with discovering bodies at the art gallery. This brings back memories of her schizophrenic father’s suicide. But Parris — a stunning woman but a middling actress whom DaCosta fails to shape well — limits such a scattershot approach.
Candyman lacks energy and creativity. Its screenplay is remarkably didactic, indicating that it was not intended for a horror fan or a Black audience. Every interesting plot point — the Candymen, the ethos of the Invisible Man — is squandered by pedestrian direction, sophomoric thought, and a cowardly commodification of Blackness. In attempting to reconcile the film’s contradictions while also forging their path, DaCosta and her collaborators have created a catastrophic engine failure that can’t make its tangle of politics — about gentrification, the Black body (horror), racism, and white desire — feel relevant or provocative. When Blackness is reduced to its bare essence, we are sold a subpar cultural product.
A strange line is uttered by a white art critic who judges Anthony’s work brutally and stereotypically at the art gallery. She states, “It speaks in didactic media clichés about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle. Your kind are the real pioneers of that cycle.” When Anthony asks who she’s talking about, she responds, “Artists.” It would be one thing if DaCosta stopped there, but it becomes a through-line in which Black gentrifiers are equated with white gentrifiers as if they have the same power to change their environment and smooth the culture of a place and community.
Horror has always been political, and it works best when images, personalities, and sonic dimensions speak to a work’s central concerns. Candyman, on the other hand, moves in a way that speaks to the current state of Black filmmaking in Hollywood as well as the so-called prestigious horror boom, in which its makers can’t find a political message that they won’t hammer you over the head with until you’re as battered and screaming in agony as the characters onscreen. Compared to the original, DaCosta’s tumbles and fizzles heaves and breathes with ripe contradictions and precise aesthetic compositions.
At this point, we need to talk about Jordan Peele’s creative endeavors outside of his direction, which I’m okay with. Peele knows a lot about this genre he’s exploring, but he lacks the vigor and talent to bring it to life. Between producing the abominable Twilight Zone refashioning and the sloppy and at times offensive Lovecraft Country, and having a hand in writing Candyman, it’s clear that Peele knows a lot about them but cannot bring them to life with the vigor and talent required. DaCosta, for her part, showed poise and emotional curiosity in her 2018 debut film Little Woods. It piqued my interest to see where she would go.
But there’s no trace of DaCosta’s voice, let alone that of any vibrant artist with a distinct point of view, in Candyman. This may be due to studios promoting new talent from small independent films to larger IP-related projects, bypassing the now-extinct mid-budget work where stars were traditionally made and directors honed their vision. Candyman predicts Hollywood’s bleak future and the jobs it will commission, particularly from Black artists. There is a distinct edge to how studios seek to commodify Blackness and how Black directors are hired to do so significantly different from previous decades. Here, our feverish desire for change, fueled by last year’s uprisings, is suffocating.