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‘Candyman’ Is Tired of America’s Racist Shit

Even more than the 1992 original, the sequel is a takedown of how white society exploits Black artists

When I was a teenager, I remember seeing Candyman, the 1992 horror movie in which a freaky dude played by Tony Todd tormented a nice lady played by Virginia Madsen. Its big hook — and I don’t mean the one Candyman had instead of a hand — was that if you said his name five times in a row while staring into a mirror, he would suddenly appear. It’s such a simple, brilliantly scary idea — this notion that you could conjure a serial killer out of thin air — and even years later, knowing full well it’s just a movie, I can’t imagine doing that to my reflection. Sure, Candyman isn’t real, but do you really want to tempt fate by saying his name?

So many horror icons preyed on their victims because they were horny teens. Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger: They were byproducts of a prudish American culture in which sex had to be punished, especially if it was being conducted by unmarried young people. Horror movies made sex seem dangerous, long before AIDS added a real-world chill to these cinematic fright fests. If you had basic human urges, well, you needed to be taught a lesson — an STD meant nothing in comparison to having a guy in a hockey mask hack you to bits.

What was always interesting about Candyman was that it didn’t operate under that philosophy. Madsen’s character Helen isn’t some horny kid — she’s a married grad student who’s studying urban legends. As the movie begins, she’s skeptical about this one she’s read about — apparently, there’s an otherworldly presence known as the Candyman who haunts the Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago — and so she visits it to do some research. What she learns is that the Candyman is real, although she’s not punished for being horny. She’s terrorized because of her curiosity — and also maybe because of her privilege. After all, Helen’s a white lady traveling into one of the Windy City’s poorest Black communities. She’s a tourist looking for an interesting story — she’s not emotionally ready to comprehend exactly how the Candyman got that way. 

In the last few years, Jordan Peele has done more to animate and challenge the horror genre than any other filmmaker. So when it was announced that he was working on a sequel to the 1992 movie, there was lots of reason to be excited. In the press notes for the new Candyman, Peele talks about being a fan of the original when he was a kid. But he also had some reservations. “The original film explored the legend of Candyman through Helen’s perspective,” Peele is quoted as saying. “But that movie struck me like a Black film. A movie for me. So, I wanted to make a movie that looked at this ghost story from a Black perspective.”

That’s exactly what his sequel does, sharply directed by Little Woods filmmaker Nia DaCosta, who will soon be making the Captain Marvel sequel The Marvels. Peele co-wrote the script, and the temperament of his Get Out and Us suffuse this new Candyman, which like those movies uses horror as a way to talk about real-world problems. The 2021 film makes Candyman’s philosophy even more apparent. He’s not going to kill you because you’re horny — and unlike Jigsaw, he doesn’t have some elaborate puzzle-box torture device to teach you a lesson about your moral failings. No, he’s mostly going to kill you because, well, you deserve it. And more often than not, it’s because you’re white and you’re racist. Sure, maybe you’re not that racist — you’re not burning crosses or wearing a white hood — but the new Candyman isn’t so concerned with those kinds of overt racists. It’s laser-focused on the casual racists, of which there are so, so many. And if you’re reading this and think this doesn’t apply to you, I’ve got some bad news.

The sequel introduces us to a seemingly happy couple: Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and Brianna (Teyonah Parris). He’s a painter, she runs an art gallery. They’ve got a pretty nice life, and once Anthony overcomes his creative block and finds some fresh inspiration, things will be even better. But when he exhibits his new work to a white dealer, the guy tells him that there’s nothing new here: When’s he gonna do something that’s more real?

It’s then that Anthony blurts out that he’s going to start a project centered around Cabrini-Green, which makes the white guy perk up. This new Candyman is astute enough that it doesn’t need to explain why: Rich, often white art consumers can’t get enough of poverty porn, and everyone’s heard how bad Cabrini-Green was. (We all saw Hoop Dreams, right?) Anthony mumbles something about wanting to make work that tackles white supremacy, which prompts the white dude to nod knowingly and respond, “White people,” as if it’s a code phrase to show that he can totally relate to Anthony’s plight. (This, by the way, is after that white guy unironically dubs him “the great Black hope for the Chicago art scene.”) Never mind that Anthony doesn’t really know anything about Cabrini-Green: He’ll do some Googling and take some pictures. If this is the sort of shit white folks like, then he’ll give it to ‘em.

It’s during this fact-finding mission that he hears about Candyman — and the legend of how you summon him. Anthony doesn’t believe any of that nonsense, but he keys into the Candyman’s backstory: He was once a regular guy named Sherman Fields, who died at the hands of some overreacting white cops. Wow, Anthony thinks, this is super-relevant in the age of Black Lives Matter. Jazzed, he goes home to Brianna, excitedly telling her about this new artistic direction — and, to punctuate his sure triumph, he cockily says Candyman’s name five times. He’s going to be hailed as a genius — he doesn’t have to worry about some silly urban legend. 

I don’t want to reveal too much of what happens next, but you can probably guess that Candyman will start causing some problems, which is putting it mildly. But what I found striking about this sequel is who gets targeted. Obviously, bad things will befall Anthony, but Candyman’s primary victims are people who associate with Anthony — or, more accurately, people who engage with Anthony’s Candyman-inspired art. A gallery exhibition of his work will lead to terrible consequences for several of the patrons. 

Are they necessarily bad people? No, not really — although one particularly mouthy individual gets their just desserts. But the two things the victims have in common is they’re white and they’re eager recipients of his art. In one form or another, they want to “experience” the injustice, poverty and brutality that his work means to represent — but from the safe distance of a hung canvas. For people like Sherman Fields, that was real pain they had to endure — for these white patrons, it’s just a thing on the wall that they can look at and have an opinion about.

DaCosta masterfully controls the air of mild dread that hangs heavy over Candyman — although the film can also be quite funny at times, too. Much like Get Out, this is mainstream entertainment that almost explicitly tells white viewers that they’re the cause of so many problems for people of color. Candyman may be the villain, but it’s white exploitation that’s the real scourge. At one point, a character will tell Anthony about a long-dead, forgotten Black artist who painted portraits for wealthy white families — he too came to a violent end thanks to a racist American society. Anthony is shocked: How could that happen to someone so beloved as this artist was? “They love what we make, but not us” is the reply.

It’s the key line in this superb sequel. Most white Americans aren’t outwardly, horrifically racist. But there are so many little ways in which people who look like me exploit people of color. For instance, we celebrate their musical accomplishments, but we don’t value them enough to let them have control over their art. (In many ways, this Candyman is an unexpected companion piece to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which examined how shabbily Black performers, then and now, are treated by white record executives.) It’s telling how much the white characters enjoy saying “Candyman” — it’s just one more cool, trendy thing for them to glom onto. 

Well, in this movie at least, that cultural appropriation is going to come with bloody repercussions. For once, they’ll feel the pain as profoundly as their Black neighbors, whose lives they never bother thinking about unless it can be turned into entertainment for their consumption. This Candyman won’t let them off the hook that easily.