29 years after the original, that name is back on everyone’s lips. ‘Candyman’ sees the titular boogeyman return at the hands of up and coming artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who finds that the myth reawakens more than just his creativity.
The opening moments of director Nia DaCosta’s Candyman reboot mirrors that of Bernard Rose’s original horror classic. Rose’s film, which followed PhD student Helen’s investigation into the projects, opened with a birds-eye tracking shot of the freeway which keeps the ghetto out, signifying Helen’s perspective on the community. DaCosta’s film flips the perspective of 1992’s Candyman, featuring shots from the ground looking up at the skyscrapers and highrises breaking through the clouds. This soft reboot of Candyman is firmly rooted in this perspective, newly interrogating the Candyman legend through a Black lens.
And that lens is Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), an up-and-coming artist just on the brink of a breakthrough. Billed as ”the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene of tomorrow”, Anthony’s art supposedly interrogates issues of Blackness in America today. We get the sense he’s phoning it in a little. His art is made to please the white art world; to objectify the Black experience with a limited engagement of its themes. This all changes when Anthony hears the Candyman legend. It gets the creative juices flowing and inspires a new art piece, one which encourages the public to summon the Chicago boogeyman by saying “Candyman” five times.
In doing so, Anthony has unwittingly turned the page on a new chapter in Candyman’s myth. The events of the first film have now been woven into the tale—albeit somewhat inaccurately, as is only fitting of an urban legend. Viewers who have not seen the 1992 original get a recap in the form of a shadow puppet show whose sharp and moody aesthetics work perfectly to set the tone of this dark folktale. Whilst Helen’s (Virginia Madsen, here reprising her role) investigation in the original was propelled by her quest for the truth, Anthony’s journey is one in which he reclaims the urban legend.
Between him and the owner of a local laundromat, Burke (Colman Domingo), Candyman is reworked into a necessary myth for the Black experience: a symptom of racial injustice, but also the necessary antidote to it. We learn that classic Candyman Daniel Robitaille (iconically portrayed in the original by Tony Todd) is far from alone; there have been many a Candyman (Candymen?) throughout America’s history. Burke even has his own: Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), whose face was rendered unrecognizable following his brutalisation at the hands of the police. Fields’ mutilation means that his body could ultimately have belonged to that of anyone from the Black community, and this is a theme with which DaCosta’s film plays particularly well in its universal address.
Less well done, sadly, are the film’s didactic efforts. The film opens with Sammy Davis Jr.’s 1972 hit song ‘The Candy Man’, making us anticipate a level of playfulness which, outside of a handful of moments where the characters are hilariously genre-aware, isn’t apparent in the rest of the narrative. This is especially disappointing given Jordan Peele’s role as producer and screenplay co-writer. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn the song into a powerful motif, in the same vein as ‘I Got 5 On It’ as seen in Peele’s most recent film, Us (2019). In particular, the theme of racial progress being superficial more than substantial—which Peele’s other film, Get Out (2017) evoked so masterfully—is a severely under-explored thread in this film.
Candyman is full of smart conversations about the state of race in America today. It’s just unfortunate that rather than bringing these critiques to life, DaCosta’s film often gives us overwrought speeches on the subject. Instead of using a sharp political critique as the subtext of a tight script, Candyman opts for brutal violence punctuated with moments of blunt elaboration. The two never quite mesh, as if the script has been severed with all the elegance of a meat hook. If Rose’s film told the story of a PhD student, DaCosta’s film all too often feels like their thesis.
There is a pleasing symmetry to the 1992 original here, but this Candyman is ultimately a less rewarding work. Visually striking and at times shock inducing, DaCosta’s reimagining feels a little too grounded in reality, and never quite reaches its true potential.
Words by Jake Abatan
Candyman is in cinemas now.
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