Candyman is a scary sequel that dares to delve into America's racist past

I had never seen the 1992 horror film Candyman, and I'm so glad I watched it before I saw the new movie of the same name. This is being promoted as a "spiritual sequel" to the '92 film, but it's very much a direct follow-on from the original story. Would the new movie be incomprehensible without the background of the first one? Not at all. But if there is anything you find even the least bit appealing about this new Candyman, you would do very well indeed to watch, or rewatch, the '92 film. (It's available on Amazon Prime and other streaming services.)

The older Candyman holds up extremely well 30 years later. No spoilers: It's the tale of grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), who is writing a thesis about Chicago's urban legends. And she becomes a tad obsessed with one about Candyman, a bogeyman figure with a hook for a hand who appears if you say his name in a mirror five times, at which point he kills you. So why on earth would anyone summon Candyman? Ah, well, this is one of the things Helen is studying: what hold urban legends have on those who revel in them, and what they say about our collective cultural fears.

Here's the thing, though: Helen is White, and she is investigating a manifestation of the Candyman legend among the residents of the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project, which is home to poor Black people. Candyman is Black, too (he's played by Tony Todd), and the tragic roots of his story are fixed in America's horrific racist past, just as its impact at Cabrini-Green springs from America's racist present. The film avoids becoming a White-savior narrative for lots of reasons, but as powerfully as it explores the legacy of American racism, its tale is nevertheless told from the perspective of a White person.

But with this sequel, co-screenwriter and director Nia DaCosta, a Black woman, fully centers Black stories and Black experience. We are back in Chicago at Cabrini-Green, though it is much changed. The neighborhood has undergone massive gentrification, and the Black people at the center of the story now are very well off: artist's agent Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris), and her partner, painter Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II).

Today, Anthony is the one obsessed with Candyman: He's only just heard about this urban legend, and something in it speaks to him for reasons he doesn't initially understand. Researching the story leads him to Helen Lyle's tale, which has itself become mythologized and misinterpreted, her name deployed by some for purposes that suit their preconceptions, not reality.

Some of that comes via a former Cabrini-Green resident Anthony encounters, Burke (Colman Domingo), who claims to have been visited by Candyman as a child, and who is a thwarted artist himself. Some of Helen's story and other aspects of the rich cultural canvas Anthony uncovers unfurl onscreen as a shadowplay of paper puppets; this was a medium Burke experimented with as a child. It's a clever, beautiful, and strikingly original way for DaCosta to toy with the unreliable narrator that culture can be, and the power of storytelling regardless of that sometimes unreliability. The film will put Anthony right about Helen's story eventually, but if you come into this new Candyman aware of what "really" happened with her, via a recent viewing of the 1992 movie, you can see the subtle warp and weft of DaCosta's story as it unfolds rather than in retrospect.

Inextricably woven together here are inescapable legacies of violence, the boundary between unacceptable cultural appropriation and genuine artistic inspiration, the pernicious influence of historical racism into today, and how wealth and influence cannot protect the people in racism's sights. They come together in a tapestry the big picture of which is this: We absolutely must not bury even the worst, most terrible stories but remember them and spread their lessons far and wide. As with the 1992 film, there is plenty of gore here, but what's scary in Candyman is not blood and guts, not monsters jumping out at us. It is the very real horror of the hatred that is baked into our society, a hatred that is always lurking in the shadows and all too often rears its hideous face.

This is not a movie about White people, and yet we might hear Candyman's insistence to "Tell everyone" directed squarely toward that quarter. Perhaps a juicy genre flick like this one is one way to get that heard. ♦

Three And a Half Stars CANDYMAN
Rated R
Directed by Nia DaCosta
Starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris

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Maryann Johanson

Maryann Johanson