REVIEW: Candyman (2021)

dir. Nia DaCosta

There’s a moment around the mid-point of Nia DaCosta’s Candyman where struggling artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) glances at a mirror only to see the titular spook staring back at him. It’s a fright that’s been coming for a while, Anthony spiralling down a blood-clotted rabbit hole as he investigates the historic murders of former ghetto Cabrini-Green (some of which took place in Bernard Rose’s original film, and many – we quickly learn – in the decades prior).

On the surface it’s a classic supernatural scare – mirrors perpetually prefiguring a feeling of unsafety – but there’s something emblematic in the moment which encapsulates the thematic power and zeitgeist defining resonance which reverberates through every frame of DaCosta’s offering, like a barely-contained, tremulous rage.

For the ’92 original – perhaps most iconic because of Tony Todd’s towering performance as the hook-handed killer who appears if you say his name five times in the, yes, mirror – was and remains a phenomenal achievement, an elegy to concepts of legacy and legend. But with its white protagonist (and white director) it’s – at least partially – an outsider’s view on the myth building of Black-American culture: Helen (Virginia Madsen) an interloper in territory that’s not fundamentally her own.

In contrast DaCosta – along with co-writers Jordan Peele (Get Out) and Win Rosenfeld – have crafted an undeniably Black film, the vast majority of the main characters being people of colour and the original’s themes of gentrification and the white-gaze explicitly examined. The result is a thrilling reclamation of the tales which Helen first encountered in ’92, reinvigorated and weaponised into a screaming proclamation of Black experience.

For this is undeniably a sequel rather than reboot, DaCosta’s film updating and developing ideas linking the mythic murderer to non-supernatural (but more horrific) acts of brutality delivered upon Black bodies. Indeed just as various characters repeat “Candyman” five times in an act of talismanic ritual, so too the litany of real-world individuals who have died at the hands of police – George Floyd; Breonna Taylor; countless others – have the injustice of their deaths kept alive by public campaigns to remember their names. In this sense, when Anthony looks in that mirror and recoils from the macabre reflection, he is just as much reeling from his own “dangerousness” as perceived and constructed by the eyes of white society and the potential for his – all too easily imagined – own horrific end.

If some third act plotting doesn’t quite tie together, it is this raw, emotional honesty which more than compensates, delivering a finale which feels simultaneously prophetic, sorrowful, rallying and exorcistic. And by the time the credit-sequence rolls – including a devastating shadow puppet dumb-show – the permeable boundary between projected make-believe and real-life horror has been utterly dissolved. As the Candyman himself exhorts, he is the writing on the wall and this is a story that must be told. For white people – this critic included – it’s a story we damn well better listen to.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

For more information on the Candyman Social Impact Initiative, click here.

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