The New Jordan Peele-Scripted ‘Candyman’ Is Strong On Themes, But Short On Characterization

Candyman, new in theaters from Universal, is built upon a strong, specific idea: that for black people to give voice to their own trauma is to inevitably be blamed for causing it. This is an age-old phenomenon, illustrated most recently in the way conservative groups almost immediately labeled Black Lives Matter as a “hate group.” This was something Malcolm X could’ve probably predicted 60-some years ago:

The guilt complex of the American white man is so profound, that when you begin to analyze the real condition of the black man in America, instead of the American white man eliminating the causes that create that condition, he tries to cover it up by accusing his accusers of teaching hate. But actually they’re just exposing him for being responsible for what exists.

Candyman, then, is an urban legend-as-metaphor, the spirit who kills only when you summon him by speaking his name aloud. To acknowledge victimization is to be victimized yourself. In the 1992 film, from Bernard Rose (based on a Clive Barker short), the character was the ghost of a 19th century black painter, who had gotten involved with a white woman and was punished by having his hand chopped off and replaced with a meathook, then set on by bees and burned. This new iteration of Candyman, from writers Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, and director Nia DaCosta, takes this concept a step further: by having its protagonist, Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen from HBO’s Watchmen) essentially become the Candyman when he delves into the gentrification that partly underpins his lifestyle.

McCoy is a painter, who has come down with a bit of painter’s block, living in a fancy loft apartment paid for by his art dealer girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). Scrambling for inspiration, Anthony stumbles upon the history of the Cabrini-Green housing projects, where the Candyman was said to live in the walls of the highrise before it was demolished. McCoy goes to the former building site, gets stung by a bee, and the next thing you know, his bee hand is beginning to rot off and he’s seeing a hook-handed killer in the mirror. Working title: “The Santa Claw.”

The implication is clear: acknowledge racism, become the boogeyman. Yet for as meticulously didactic as the movie is in explaining the metaphor, it’s equally muddled in the concrete action. Candyman also feels like it expects the viewer to be much more conversant in the Candyman mythology than I was prepared to be.

Anthony gets obsessed, almost possessed. He begins painting macabre images of dead black men. His piece for an art show, “Say His Name,” is a riff on the Candyman, a series of paintings behind a mirror, inviting the viewer to summon the Candyman themselves. Critics initially dismiss it, until Brianna’s boss and his intern are murdered under mysterious circumstances in front of the very same work. Suddenly people on the news are responding to McCoy’s work, saying his name. Almost as if he’d planned it himself.

Trying to understand it all, Anthony calls on a classic old sage character, a laundromat owner named Burke, played by the silky smooth Colman Domingo. Burke helpfully breaks down Anthony’s possessed paintings and the murdered black men they represent. “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened, that they’re still happening,” Burke tells Anthony.

“Burke,” of course, was the name of the psychiatrist who interviewed the female lead in the 1992 Candyman, a semiotics student named Helen, played by Virginia Madsen, who was also investigating the Candyman myth. I say “of course” based on the way the movie seems to expect us to naturally make this connection; I only just now discovered it on Wikipedia. Eventually, Brianna’s family history is revealed to have its own connection with the 1992 Candyman story. Anthony’s and Burke’s backstories are even more closely intertwined.

How this is all supposed to relate to the present action — the art, the murders, the becoming — I’m not entirely sure. I intend this not as an insult but simply as a statement of fact. I didn’t understand why the murders were happening and how they were related to the characters’ histories. Who is being killed, by whom, and why? These are important considerations in a slasher movie, no matter how “elevated” that slasher movie is meant to be.

Candyman is certainly elevated in terms of acting and of composition (with fittingly spooky shots of the Chicago skyline), it was just hard to appreciate much of the action on a visceral level. Candyman, more of a concept than a person, kills in order to “perpetuate the Candyman myth,” I suppose. And that myth, as explained by Burke, serves to help black people cope with racial violence. But what does it mean to cope? To simply carry on? “Coping” isn’t an especially cathartic action for a gory genre thriller. Is this the horror movie as self-care? I can understand what Candyman represents, but what, exactly, am I supposed to feel when he kills people?

‘Candyman’ is available only in theaters, August 27. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.