In 1992, the original Candyman was released and subsequently became one of the most important Black horror films of all time. The story followed white graduate student Helen Lyle on her study into Cabrini-Green’s urban legend of Candyman. Candyman was the son of a slave who fell in love with a white woman. When she got pregnant, the woman’s father had Candyman lynched. The mob cut off his hand and replaced it with a hook, smeared his body in honeycomb so the bees stung him to death, and finally burned his body on his pyre. Helen discovered Candyman was real, and he wanted her to be his next victim. After framing her for various murders and kidnapping an infant, Candyman was destroyed by Helen (who turned out to be his reincarnated white lover), and thus was the end of the spirit.
Or so it seemed.
Candyman (2021) is a direct sequel to the first film and follows Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) -- the infant Candyman kidnapped in the first film -- as an adult. He is now a struggling artist who just moved to the now gentrified Cabrini-Green with his partner, Brianna. The story follows him as he finds creative inspiration in the myth of Candyman. However, his art causes Candyman to appear again and murder anyone who says his name five times into a mirror. Anthony begins to descend into madness as he sees Candyman in his own reflection and begins to undergo a physical transformation into the spirit.
The directing of this film is spectacular. From the moment the movie begins, the atmosphere is unsettling, aided by a chilling score and slow, upside-down shots of the high-rises in the gentrified Cabrini-Green. There is no doubt that Nia DaCosta is going places. She is a brilliant mind, discussing at great length what this film means to her and why she chose to represent Black history and trauma the way she did. She is not allowing herself to be constrained to telling stories about Black pain either -- she is set to direct the Marvel blockbuster The Marvels, an amazing opportunity for an up-and-coming female director of color. The movie will also feature female superheroes of color, one of which will be played by Teyonah Paris.
Brianna (Teyonah Parris) is one of the best female protagonists I’ve seen in a horror movie, or any movie. She is wonderful representation for Black women and a role model for any Black girl or woman. Brianna puts herself first in every situation, as she should. She’s staunchly opposed to saying “Candyman” five times, something she maintains through the entire film. She is confident in herself and her abilities, even when others doubt her. She remains loyal to Anthony until he displays signs that he may become physically violent, in which case Brianna immediately removes herself from the house because her safety comes first. Brianna doesn’t hesitate to do what’s right -- for herself, and for those she loves. She is also is smart and self-aware, a necessary combination for a female horror protagonist (and likely a result of her experiences living while Black).
While characters in horror films typically make all the wrong decisions, ultimately leading to their doom, Brianna makes all the right ones. She’s a breath of fresh air as a horror protagonist. Even after she leaves Anthony, she still cares for his mental well-being. And when she is kidnapped by Burke and realizes the truth of Anthony’s situation, she immediately understands what is happening and sympathizes with him. Brianna manages to make it out and viciously stabs Burke to death, avoiding falling into another trope in which the protagonist thinks they have killed the villain, only for the villain to rise again.
When Anthony comes to Brianna, she cautiously accepts him, realizing he means no harm. She cares deeply for him, and the look on Teyonah Parris’s face when Anthony is shot to death in her arms is absolutely agonizing. Yet, she remains calm because she knows she must when those police officers arrest her, or else they may see her as a threat, too. When she is forced by that cop into making one of two terrible decisions, she does something bold but life-saving: she calls on Candyman four times, allowing the officer to say it the fifth time, sealing their fate.
Candyman (2021) dives into the hard-hitting issues concerning racial history in America that the first film barely skimmed over. This film is much better than the original because it’s a story about generational trauma in the Black community told by Black people. Only someone who is a part of the community, who has been personally affected by the systemic racism explored in this film, could fully understand its scope and properly portray it. While the 1992 film was written and directed by white creators, the new sequel was written by Jordan Peele (Oscar-winning director of Get Out) and was written and directed by rising star director Nia DaCosta. The cast is primarily Black. The first film centers a white savior in Helen Lyle, the white woman protagonist trying to “save” the people of Cabrini-Green. The 2021 sequel centers Black people in a story about their own trauma, rather than allowing white people to capitalize on Black people’s pain to make themselves the heroes and assuage white guilt.
Instead, this film features a unique, extremely current issue of how Black artists are forced to exploit their communities for their success. Anthony, a struggling Black artist, is constantly told to focus on Black pain, racism, intergenerational trauma, etc. in his art. Even when he does do that, he’s told it’s not good enough. The movie highlights how extraordinarily high the bar is set for Black people in the art industry, but this is true for Black people working in any industry. They are always expected to discuss their struggles and somehow capitalize on that experience. They must work harder, be leagues above their white counterparts in talent in order to get the tiniest scrap of recognition, yet are always expected to focus on the difficulties of being Black in America.
Although this is a horror movie, the Black characters are never brutalized -- a distinctly important choice. While Black characters are often the ones killed off first in any movie and their bodies massacred and focused on as if they were objects, that is not the case here. There are two Black characters throughout the entire film who die, and both are killed offscreen -- the camera choosing instead to focus on the way their deaths affect the lives of the other Black characters around them. Instead, white characters are the ones often brutalized in this film. The white characters die because they treat Blackness and the pain that comes with that identity like a trend or art piece to be critiqued (the art critic), because they do not take the myth of Candyman seriously enough since they’ve spent their entire lives secured by white privilege (the art curator, his girlfriend, and the teen girls in school), and because they violently enforce white supremacy (the cops). Not once is a person of color foolish enough to say Candyman’s name five times besides Anthony, and he pays a terrible price for it.
In the original film, Candyman mostly kills Black people. Most of his victims were the residents of Cabrini-Green -- the poor, disenfranchised Black people. Candyman stated that his reason for killing was to keep his legend alive so he could keep thriving. But in the context of his life, it makes no sense why Candyman would target people just like him. Why didn’t Candyman ever go after the white people who brutally tortured and murdered him in the first place, along with countless other innocent Black people? Candyman (2021) solves this plot hole with its two new Candymen. The current spirit who plagues Anthony throughout the movie is Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), a Black man who was suspected by the police of putting razor blades in the candy that ended up in the hands of a white girl. Sherman was found by police in Cabrini-Green and viciously murdered. But after his death, razor blades continued showing up in candy -- he’d been innocent. So, Sherman returns as a vengeful spirit.
This is the new lore of Candyman: he is every innocent Black man and boy who became victims of violent white supremacy. Instead of being one man, Candyman exemplifies the repeating cycle of unjust murders and violence against Black people. He represents the victims of slavery, police brutality, white supremacy, and systemic racism.
During the end credits, a grim shadow-puppet sequence displays Anthony furiously painting the portraits of every man who has ever taken on the Candyman title. The sequence features each one’s backstory, each so gut-wrenching they brought tears to my eyes. DaCosta purposely roots the Candyman mythology in reality, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Many of the former Candymen’s stories appear to be based on the real-life murders of Black men and boys, driving home how important this story is. One sequence parallels the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., who was taken by white men and dragged behind their truck for three miles. Another poignant sequence shows the execution of a young boy, perhaps in reference to the 1944 murder of 14-year old George Stinney Jr., falsely accused of murdering two white girls and sentenced to death.
Expanding the Candyman myth like this gives it much more nuance and makes it all the more heartbreaking, especially when Anthony dies at the end of the movie, becoming another victim. Just like Burke planned, Anthony is gunned down by policeman because they assumed he’d been the one murdering all those people. But Anthony never hurt a single person. He was innocent. But Burke has changed Candyman’s purpose now -- he is no longer a victim victimizing other innocents. He becomes a weapon of revenge for other Black people to wield in the face of white supremacy. When Brianna calls on Candyman to save her, he does -- brutally murdering all of the white police officers in a disturbing act of catharsis for Black pain. He avenges himself and prevents Brianna from becoming another victim of institutionalized racism. Candyman is suddenly a romantic hero, saving Brianna from the officers she could not save him from.
This movie is so important -- for Black horror, for Black viewers, for anyone who cares about the Black community in America and the history of injustice they’ve faced and the injustice they still face at the hands of white supremacy. You need to see Candyman. As the original Candyman (Tony Todd) says in the final line of the film,
Please visit this site to learn more about the Candyman Social Impact Initiative, which includes a roundtable on the importance of Black horror and spotlights Black artists.