Hey y’all! It’s me again, Dr. Kinitra, your resident horror scholar. Now that Nia DaCosta’s glorious Candyman (2021) has completed its now-history-making opening weekend, I’m here to break it down for you through a scholarly lens, as we did last fall with Lovecraft Country. Please consider reading the Candyman primer, in which I interviewed various other Black horror scholars and writers about the background basics of Candyman films and lore, so we can dive right in.
(Warning: Major spoilers ahead).
There has been a lot of brouhaha around the idea that Black horror is Black trauma porn. Some folks erroneously insist that Black horror is only about Black death and therefore, ultimately should not exist—at least, not in its current form. However, there are rarely suggestions about what Black horror should be instead—as that would take knowledge of and respect for the genre itself.
In fact, Black horror seems to be the only genre getting all the smoke even though dramas such as The Wire and docuseries such as the entire ID channel lineup are given blatant passes. I will watch 10 Black horror films before I fill my day with the real-life horrors of The First 48 and discussed this problematic phenomenon in a Twitter thread a few months ago, from which I will use some of the most salient points to aid in our analysis of Candyman (2021).
Horror is a purposeful, controlled trafficking in trauma to allow viewers to process difficult themes from their theater seat or couch. It is called “horror” because it is meant to evoke revulsion in the viewer—you are supposed to be uncomfortable. Horror creator Dr. Chesya Burke continuously admonishes folks looking for safety in horror, warning: “It’s important [people] understand searching for safety [within] horror is misplaced.”
Yet, it is clear in Candyman that even as a creator of horror, Nia DaCosta respects the power of Black trauma, and asks us to engage its themes without re-traumatizing us. This is seen in her pointed use of shadow puppets to tell the most difficult and potentially harmful parts of the story—the puppets relay the backstory beautifully, while the lack of gore and detail removes the most visceral parts of the narrative. DaCosta is clearly influenced by the Black art world as her puppets recall the haunting silhouette imagery of artist Kara Walker’s explorations of slavery.
DaCosta furthers the impact of Black women’s artistry upon her visual style by invoking the mirror work of artist Carrie Mae Weems to shoot the most violent parts of the film (through the use of mirrors and reflection). This allows for a certain removal or distancing for the viewer while still confronting them with the violence. In so doing, DaCosta is willfully and cleverly pushing back against this false narrative of Black horror; a sort of nuance that can only occur when creators not only know the horror genre intimately as both fan and student, but they also genuinely love and care for the genre. Both aspects have been missing from the more shallow critiques of Black horror—as well as in the creations of those simply capitalizing off of its popularity.
Candyman explores the complexity of spirit presence and possession that have always grounded many of the supernatural explorations of Black horror. There are tragedy and triumph, victimization and agency—all existing simultaneously and in tension with one another. The very legend of Candyman is grounded in the West African concept of nommo, which Dr. Malefi Asante defines as the “generative power of the spoken word,” in which one can call forth a spirit simply by naming them. The legend of Candyman exists in the practice of conjure at its most simplistic, meaning: to summon forth by invocation or incantation. Naming something gives it power. Ultimately, there are five Candymen, and saying their name five times conjures the spirits and power of them all.
“Be my victim” was a phrase often repeated by the original Candyman in 1992 and the spirit of this phrase is threaded throughout the story’s current film iteration. The Black men who become Candyman die as victims of white violence and we see their stories told through shadow puppetry during the film as well as in the credits. Daniel Robitaille, the original and fictional Candyman, is killed by a white mob for allegedly defiling the daughter of a rich, white man. But his creation spawns the birth of five more Candymen, some of whom are based on real-life Black victims.
The first spawn of Candyman, whose identity I cannot determine, dies from one white man’s axe in his back as he argues with another. The second Candyman isn’t a man at all; he was actually a child. George Stinney Jr. was a 14 year-old child, convicted for murdering two white girls in rural South Carolina in March of 1944. He was sentenced to death by electrocution and became the youngest person in modern times to die in the electric chair. With regard to young Mr. Stinney, I continue to learn from Black Horror; I did not know his story—fellow horror scholar John Jennings had to enlighten me.
The third spawn of Candyman is James Byrd Jr., a Black man dragged to his death in 1998 while chained to a truck by three white men in Jasper, Texas. The fourth is the fictional Sherman Fields, who is beaten to death by white policemen for allegedly putting razors in the candy of white children. And spoiler alert: the fifth and final Candyman is the character Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is the center of this film.
Anthony is literally crowned in red throughout the film, a sign that he was marked from the very beginning, for he was the newborn baby kidnapped in the 1992 film by the original Candyman. He spent days with Candyman in his lair, fed honey from the spirit’s bees for sustenance, and was ultimately saved by white heroine Helen, who burns in his stead.
Anthony’s slow development into the Candyman begins with his return to the now-shuttered Cabrini Green housing projects and the sting of a bee. Professor Jennings insists it is that bee that initiates the possession; we see necrosis begin to take place on Anthony’s skin and spread from that very minor wound. It is burning away his human body to become a haven for the bees. He immediately begins to mentally deteriorate and to lose track of time. As the film continues and his metamorphosis into Candyman metastasizes, we see his skin begin to pucker, actively honeycombing as if to manifest not only a home for the bees soon to come, but to also manifest the effects of the fire in which he should have perished.
Anthony is slowly seduced and prepared for sacrifice. The bees begin the process. Neighborhood sage Billy Burke (Colman Domingo)—a former resident of the Cabrini Green housing project—nurtures the process, offering necessary information in fits and starts, preparing him for his metamorphosis. Tellingly, a young Billy encountered the Candyman twice; first as a living man, and later, as the vengeful spirit who brutally murdered his sister and her friend who conjured him in the family bathroom.
The calling forth of Candyman in this film and under the deft direction of DaCosta allows viewers to engage the cycles of trauma and violence in Black communities from the controlled, air-conditioned environment of the dark movie theater. Candyman does not shy away; neither from the ugliness nor the harsh effects of its violence. The message? The violent subjugation of Black men affects us all.
DaCosta demonstrates that those children who aren’t outright killed by the traumatized spirits of Black men are forever scarred. Billy’s sister has been murdered physically, but his own murder has been spiritual. Young Billy seems to stagnate in life; he remains in the neighborhood even after its death. He works at the cleaners, getting rid of the neighborhood’s dirt while holding space as an acolyte of Candyman and waiting for Anthony’s return. His humanity is gone as he has failed to mature and grow—his own desensitization seen as he so casually saws Anthony’s hand off and stabs a hook into the stump as he calls the police to initiate Anthony’s murder, for each only exists to further the Candyman legend.
It is through Anthony’s girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), that we see an example of the Candymen’s traumatizing effects upon the women who love them. Briana is primed for her relationship with Anthony as her father was a tortured artist who committed suicide right in front of her. She is schooled in watching a man she loves deteriorate mentally and, as seen with Anthony, physically. As the film continues, Anthony becomes less stable, less reliable, and more agitated—possibly building towards violence against himself or someone else, even her. Things get so bad, she willingly leaves her own damn house, where she pays most (all?) of the damn bills! You know how much it takes for a Black person (across the gender spectrum) to do that?
Top-notch horror also provides a cathartic ending, the most important act of viewing horror—often with sweeping acts of agency by the previously victimized. The new and improved Stanley Crouches (thanks Dr. Tracey Salisbury!) of horror willfully forget the genre’s triumphs, choosing only to traffic in its tragedies. What other genre allows a murdered Black man to come back to life and kill an entire squadron of Chicago police while floating on a cloud of bees? I’ll wait.
It is Brianna who initiates the agency of the film’s final act. She begins by viciously killing Billy just as he comes to kill her. She is committed to surviving this tragedy; she is determined to triumph. She has become the Black final girl, fighting for her life against the monsters out to destroy her, be they human or supernatural, a trope I have written about before. Brianna refuses to become a victim; she has actively chosen to become a witness. When the white cop demands that she either support their version of Anthony’s murder as his victim or be charged as his accomplice, Brianna chooses a third way: She asks to look at herself in the mirror and calls forth Candyman—for she is now a believer.
Remember when I said that Black ideologies of spirit presence and possession were complex? Well, this is what I meant. For Candyman is a powerful presence; he is not only a perpetrator of violence upon the Black community, he is also a vengeful protector of said community. DaCosta urges us to view this entity as both/and rather than either/or. Candyman protects the community from interlopers such as gentrifiers, colonizers, and exploiters—seen through the violent deaths of the gallery owner, the journalist, and the young white girls (children of gentrifiers), who dare to conjure him as if he is something to play with.
The film ends with a final reiteration that Candyman is not for play-play, for he is weaponized victimhood. Brianna recognizes this as she calls him forth. He is a powerful force that must be respected because his anger, though righteous, can be dangerous to us as well. This is why even in calling him, Brianna averts her eyes—She is confident, but not stupid. Candyman (2021) is just as, if not more powerful than Candyman (1992)...because now they #ganggang.
Glossary: a list of terms and descriptions to aid your deep dive into Candyman.
Chicago - One of the main characters in the film is the city of Chicago, a Black city founded by a Black Haitian, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Chicago is known as The Second City because it burned down in The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, making it a city that was built twice. The remnants of the old buildings of Chicago were used to rebuild the foundations of the new Chicago. It is a ghost city on a grave, built upon the bones of the old city.
Recommendations: If your interest is piqued and you would like to take things further, here are some media suggestions that will help you explore the world of Candyman.
Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2006) by Yvonne P. Chireau
Carrie Mae Weems: Three Decades of Photography and Video (2012) by Kathryn E. Delmez
Racial Democracy and the Black Metropolis: Housing Policy in Postwar Chicago (2012) by Preston H. Smith II
Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings in Contemporary Horror (2017) by Kinitra D. Brooks
Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker (2004) by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw