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‘Candyman’ Doesn’t Have a Sharp Enough Hook

The 2021 reboot from Nia DaCosta and Jordan Peele takes aim at the Hollywood industrial complex that birthed it. But intention isn’t the same thing as execution.

Universal Pictures/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Say what you will about the confectioners of this summer’s recoated Candyman sequel—they know a sticky situation when they see one. In Hollywood, an industry built upon the repurposing of this country’s fissures and myths is undergoing a racial recalibration that has resulted in two things: a tide of new content fueled off non-white life, and at the same time a whole bunch of folks who are tired of seeing the predations inflicted upon them be retrofitted into multiple subgenres of cinema and prestige television. Starting in the early 2010s, for nearly every August Wilson adaptation or Get Out, there was a cursed double dose of Detroit and Them; Antebellum and (God save us) Green Book. Words like “representation” and “trauma” became marketing buzz terms and critical catchalls, and creators like Lena Waithe and Kenya Barris carved out lucrative nooks in the streaming hellscape by force-feeding viewers a nutritious pulp of racial ambiguity–fetish sitcoms and historical horrors that play like Octavia Butler went mad and got obsessed with shedding skin. After seeing some version of “what if I told you the world could be more racist than it already is” for the 40th time in less than a decade, it’s hard not to feel tired.

Of course, fatigue never stopped anyone from trying to make more money. But the swell in pushback is making it more difficult for Black creators who can and do accept mainstream financial backing to avoid seeming like shills whenever they decide to tell stories about their people. Directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by the Oscar-winning auteur Jordan Peele, the latest Candyman attempts to glide over this hazard by flaying the industrial complex that birthed it. But it’s called a hazard for a reason.

From the glassy and ivory perch of their West Chicago duplex, the film’s central couple, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), are first spotted hosting family and talking wine. Peering out of the window of their home, Anthony—a young artist in the midst of an existential slump—notes their proximity to the remnants of the Cabrini-Green Houses, the one-time home to over 15,000 residents and the setting for most of the original Candyman. Brianna, a high-achieving and over-credentialed curator, spins a quick summary for their guests of how the hood got revitalized: white America “built the ghetto,” eventually changed their minds, “erased it,” and retook the land. Her brother’s white boyfriend listens to this dissertation and then, between tugs on a dry white, offers a half-observation, half-rebuttal. “Kind of like you guys,” he says as the lens closes in on the discomfort of the two upwardly mobile professionals.

It is the first in a line of critiques lobbed at the pair. Later in the first act, we see Anthony dodging a stream of inquiries from a white gallery host about his progress for an upcoming show; only after Anthony promises to center racism in his new production is the salesman convinced. A few ticks afterward, at the actual showing, Anthony tries to impress an art critic with a flurry of highfalutin race-speak, only to see the effort fall flat—the critic tunes out his every word and pans the piece anyway. Candyman is not just leery of white consumption of Black art, it is also critical of those artists willing to peddle racialized works to white audiences in the first place.

The film—which uses Anthony’s connection to the Candyman legend to explore the legacy of anti-Black violence in U.S. life—isn’t entirely separate from its predecessors, but is unmistakably different. Clive Barker’s 1985 short story “The Forbidden,” the basis for the entire Candyman franchise, was a Liverpool class commentary set in a Thatcherite era public housing complex. The figure of the Candyman himself doesn’t even appear until the final third of the written story. The first film, directed by Bernard Rose, is a mesmerizing if thorny work, renovated for U.S. audiences and built atop a kind of drug war–inflected depiction of urban decay. The story manages to center a strain of Black rage—embodied by the history of the original Candyman, Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), an affluent portraitist brutally murdered by white vigilantes—even if it fails to allow that rage to engulf the perpetrators who ultimately caused it. In comparison, the new film feels anesthetized. There is not just one Candyman but multiple, all crushed beneath the violent gears of white supremacy; the ghouls themselves are no longer visible, even to their victims, unless seen in a mirror; gone is the folklorist edge and the lulling charisma that once gave the franchise its spunk. Where “The Forbidden” fashioned horror as subversive, and the 1992 film reveled in taboo, DaCosta’s formulation is merely in dialogue with its own creators.

Which is not a sin, per se. It does, however, make the movie into a sort of pseudo-defense of its creators’ motivations and its own existence. And yet the problem with Candyman is that the argument at the movie’s core—that a mainstream work can be rebellious simply out of intention rather than execution—is often inconsistent, at times unconvincing, and even more, muddled to the point of obscurity.

Here, in the least amount of words and the most predictable fashion, is a hint at how Candyman ends: with bloodshed. After 75 minutes of watching Anthony encircle, obsess over, and become physically one with the spirit of the Candyman, we find out that it was not mere luck driving his fate. Like most horror episodes, there is a final duel, the twist being that it isn’t a wraith who strikes him down but the marauding hand of law enforcement. Brianna is taken into custody and given a choice. She can either lie about the officers’ actions or die. She chooses another option, by now hip to the game of scares, and utters the word “Candyman” five times into the mirror of the police vehicle she’s been detained in. The spirit responds in full, mowing down each and every officer before instructing her, at last, to “tell everyone.”

It’s a conclusion that doesn’t really make all that much sense. After over an hour of petty slayings by numerous cold and grinning Candymen, to transform these figures into undead freedom fighters, dedicated enough to spare a Black woman from a state-sanctioned execution, does not merely strain credulity—it is entirely contradictory. Despite all the updates made to Candyman, again and again the titular characters don’t so much kill to inspire belief as they do to challenge disbelief. Their sole cause is to guard their own memory until, at the very last moment, the film asks viewers to believe that they are in fact now driven by a deep and unquenching passion for justice. (The fact that earlier in the film, a Candyman cleaved the jugular of a Black teenage girl who dared to summon him in her bathroom mirror, is left wholly unexamined.)

Even the value of what Candyman proposes—that it would be potent for Brianna to “tell everyone,” that exposing horror is a path to defanging it—doesn’t stand up against reason. What is there to tell? Who is there to tell? The horrors that pave human lives are not unknown to those who profit from them. Power doesn’t have its head in the sand—it resides above the clouds, above the stench and the wails and the spilling of blood. Whoever they are, they already know. They’ve always known.

If DaCosta believes that it’s ultimately excusable for Candyman to mine real history and real pain for the ultimate goal of a Hollywood studio’s gains because, in doing so, the work serves to “tell everyone,” that calculus is flawed. America does not suffer from a lack of self-awareness, it suffers from a mania of self-delusion, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no matter how pellucid a reflection they’re gazing into. No one struggles to be convinced of something that they already know. Any story that assumes the contrary is destructively naive.

There is, of course, the chance that the movie doesn’t actually mean “everyone”; that the Candyman wants Brianna to tell Black people; that this is a weapon for us and only us. As the Candyman is a tool for liberation in this fictional world, the logic goes, subversive works like the rebooted film could be used to shift the terms of real life. (“Change the institution from the inside,” a museum curator describes to Brianna, halfway through the film.) But the very fact that this interpretation is uncertain, shrouded in obscurity, suggests that the film and its critique are swallowed by the limitations of the format. A movie made with the funding of an über-wealthy, historically white conglomerate and released to a predominantly white audience can move only so much and in so many ways. The people who made Candyman knew what they were getting into, anticipated the political climate, and tried to have their sweets (sorry) and eat them too. They thought they could take the glare—of Hollywood and history—but ended up melted by the sun. Because if they had to mince their words when things got sticky, to bury their intentions just to make a position habitable, how were they going to tell anyone anything in the first place?