Candyman Skewers the Art World’s Exploitation of Black Pain

Opening with upside-down Chicago skyscrapers ascending/descending into the clouds, it’s initially unclear what kind of subverted Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory we’re entering with Candyman, a sequel / quasi reboot to the 1992 film of the same name. The new movie’s eye is interested in the implication of images, and perhaps even more intrigued by the implication of watching as an act — be it at an art show, gruesome news on television, or someone seeing themselves as their past, present, and future collides. Director and co-writer Nia DaCosta’s frames constantly consider the weight of different gazes, how myths proliferate visually, and the uneasy proximity between institutions and the marginalized people they exploit. 

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in Candyman

While Brianna (Teyonah Parris) is working her way up the curatorial ladder, her artist boyfriend Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is suffering creative block. He’s stereotyped by his manager as the “Great Black Hope of the Chicago Art World,” but chastised by many (including a white critic) for being too didactic and focusing too much on Black pain. Even when he extends his interests into the gentrification of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood and its local mythology around the supernatural killer known as the “Candyman” (Tony Todd), everyone around him bristles at the confrontational nature of the work. Then, when a string of murders connected to Anthony’s art emerges, reviving the Candyman legend, his visibility soars. At a cost.

This is a portrait of an artist going mad, fueled by systemic injustice and complicated by ambivalence around how a good deal of the most successful Black art right now is about or derived from trauma. Are the filmmakers peering into the looking glass here? Abdul-Mateen II looks like he’s about to combust from the pressure, but his performance never seems affected.

Teyonah Parris in Candyman

As established in the original film (written and directed by Bernard Rose, based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden”), the Candyman is the vengeful spirit of a Black man lynched for romancing a white woman. Say his name five times while staring into a mirror, and he will manifest, swarming with bees and wielding a hook hand, and kill you. That film posits folklore as a form of self-sustainability for neglected communities, with main character Helen (Virginia Madsen) researching the urban legend for her semiotics thesis. Here, Anthony’s obsession with Candyman first consumes his art, and then himself. While taking photographs of what remains of the projects in Cabrini-Green, he suffers a bee sting which becomes infected. He sees the towering figure of the Candyman in every mirror, and eventually it’s all he can paint.

The parallels in obsession between the two versions seems complementary, a poisoned-ink-blotted study of particular milieus — academia in the first film, the art world in this one. Both are insular, careerist, pretentious, at the beck and call of The Institution, and of course, shaped irrevocably by whiteness. The original film straddles self-awareness of the flaws of the academic space while offering a hint of generosity toward the sincerity of a white outsider’s intellectual curiosity. The art world of this Candyman is a bit more pointed and talky, hyper-specific in its construction of Anthony’s work, but lacking clarity about any of the artists around him. The original may have its contradictions around race or gender, but everything about this update is overcorrected and explained away. 

From Candyman

DaCosta’s direction says with more grace what the screenplay, co-written with executive producer Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, over-says and underlines. It makes for an ultimately frustrating experience, a film that develops friction with metaphor, but doesn’t quite name metaphor itself as a tool of white supremacy, if it is. If at first there’s sharp ribbing at white audiences craving art about Black pain, there’s also the sneaking suspicion that, like its lead, the film itself transforms from critique to embodiment. It undermines some of its most interesting images and ideas by explicating them plainly, leaving any room for interpretation to shrink as the film goes on. (Which is an accusation Brianna makes about Anthony’s art, and hence possibly a rhetorical trap I’m falling into now.) 

The original Candyman was slicker in its vacillation between metaphor and reality without dulling its political edge. But maybe the new Candyman is a bit of a riposte, with its clear connections to contemporary issues of disenfranchisement, art world exploitation, and police brutality. Perhaps it’s a variation on a proposal Anthony makes for an art piece, daring visitors to look into a mirror and summon darkness and vengeance. Perhaps it’s saying, “You want a Black horror film? Here’s your Black horror film.”

Candyman opens in theaters August 27.

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