The Implicit Irony of The New CANDYMAN

MGM

If there’s one word that neatly summarizes the new Nia DaCosta-directed addition to the Candyman series, it is the word ‘gentrification’. But there is a subtle hint of irony baked into this assessment, which I am not entirely sure the filmmakers were completely aware of.

Going by its dictionary definition, gentrification is a process in which a poor area experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate or rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents. Naturally, this is a highly controversial topic in the spheres of urban planning as it invariably affects the most vulnerable members of any society and it should come as no surprise that it has slowly entered the realm of artistic expression. You don’t really have to look very far to find recent examples of this subject handled in the cinematic format with The Last Black Man in San Francisco (find my essay on this magnificent film here) or some elements of Blindspotting, just to name a few. However, I am not here to find out to what lengths the new Candyman goes in exploring this subject. In fact, it doesn’t seem too interested in using it as anything more than an element of its grander socio-political message and a crucial building block of its plot development. What is interesting about the theme of gentrification in the context of this movie is that it can be ironically applied to the film itself.

Although I touched on this briefly in my own review, the new Candyman is a direct sequel to the 1992 Bernard Rose film and as such it applies a fair bit of mirror image symmetry to its relationship with the cult predecessor. Cabrini-Green is now a gentrified neighbourhood, which is both explored by the main character and commented upon by various other characters. In a way it seems that the filmmakers were after all interested in exploring the changes in perspective and artistic sensitivity with regard to this mythos. However, in making their movie – and perhaps completely unwittingly – DaCosta and Peele gentrified the original.

In case you don’t remember, the 1992 Candyman, written and directed by Bernard Rose, took Clive Barker’s original short story, transplanted it to the American setting and imbued it with the racial socio-political connotations that have since become synonymous with the title itself, and perhaps just as iconic as Tony Todd’s baritone voice booming from both speakers as though he was in our heads, and his signature hook for a hand. But the story itself wasn’t primarily concerned with exploring the black experience, nor did it aspire to become an icon for the historic vengeance descending upon white Americans. It was a bit more subtle than that. The original film was dealing with a white (which is crucial) grad student Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen) who becomes mesmerized by the Candyman legend and starts digging in search of its cultural roots. In doing so she inadvertently puts herself in danger, not necessarily because she ends up exploring the destitute neighbourhood of Cabrini-Green, but because her curiosity and open-mindedness invite the curse of the Candyman to infest her dreams and to slowly asphyxiate her sanity. She becomes a symbol for the societally repressed historic white guilt coming back to haunt the nation which either completely forgot or disregarded the fact it was built on the back of a veritable holocaust.

Even though this part of the lore was invented by Bernard Rose, as it wasn’t there in the original short story, it became the heart and soul of the film and pretending that the character of Candyman is some kind of an equivalent of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, i.e. a singularly recognizable slasher villain and an invitation to cosplay for Halloween, is at best myopic and perhaps completely inappropriate. Candyman isn’t a horror villain but a concept of historic guilt, anthropomorphized. What is more, its use by the original film was also limited and strategic to the thematic core of the story, which was to suggest that reckoning with the brutal and inconvenient past will not be easy for vast swathes of the American society. In fact, it will be brutal and bloody and underpinned by a subtle hint of historic irony…

Enter Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta who surveyed the abandoned paragraphs of this mythology and various bits of graffiti covering it in places and decided they could reclaim it for their own use, redevelop certain aspects of the original, leave some features untouched (like the iconic look of the titular character) and demolish the rest. I wonder… Didn’t they see the irony of what they were up to? Granted, on some level you could potentially argue they were somewhat self-aware, as evidenced by the short exchange between Anthony and the art critic who condescendingly suggests that the artist is just as guilty of disrespecting and abusing the past intergenerational traumas as he is drawing inspiration from it to dick around in gentrified lofts instead of having to go to actual work. In fact, she suggests the process of gentrification is partially driven by younger generations who on one hand disagree with the displacement of the vulnerable while they like to pay fuck-all for rent. Naturally, this is a short-sighted perspective that completely disregards financial limitations and pressures placed by the highly stratified society on those people by preceding generations; and it is at one point raised in the film, too. But this is where the self-awareness ends.

So, on one hand the new Candyman looks as though it was aware of the strange bits of ironic symmetry it was toying with, at least with regard to some of the thematic elements the story was attempting to explore. But on the other, it was seemingly gleefully walking into a quagmire in terms of its own relationship to the source material and treatment thereof. Now, I don’t necessarily like the idea of treating any source material as gospel (as long as the end result works in some capacity and in the context of what it is seemingly trying to achieve), but I think everyone can agree that certain elements of the Candyman mythos should be toyed with rather carefully. After all, any changes instigated by the filmmakers might quickly become permanent staples and it has to be carefully weighed whether it is a good idea to sacrifice the longstanding legacy left by the Bernard Rose film (and Clive Barker’s source material) and evolve it to better fit the current zeitgeist. To continue the gentrification analogy, some attention needs to be paid when redeveloping a gentrified area as to whether the spirit and soul of this place is worth preserving or not. Perhaps some buildings are better left untouched. Maybe some elements of the architecture call for being preserved, not demolished. Maybe some other places – such as churches and historical monuments that happen to be part of the redeveloped communities – need to be left alone.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I become that the filmmakers weren’t too keen to respect the spirit and tone of the original. They took what they needed – elements of plot, mentions of Helen Lyle and the circumstantial connection between Anthony and the events of the original film – and they warped the rest to suit their mission, which I can only believe is to make this film fit in the post-BLM cultural landscape. Thus, the new Candyman disposes with the idea (which was central to the original) of white people digging through their history only to find demons that cannot be contained once released and focuses squarely on the aspect of historic vengeance taking a human form. Granted, in isolation this idea is quite compelling; that is until you take a closer look and figure out it might actually be full of holes, which doesn’t honestly matter in the moment. As the film progresses, it is visceral and intriguing enough to suck the viewer into its headspace for long enough to suppress and logic-based criticism. However, problems start percolating when you take the time to compare the DaCosta film against the original and see what has been retained, what has been changed, and what has been discarded.

Now, the most important change made to the Candyman pertains to the nature of the legend itself. Candyman is no longer a personified vengeful spirit easily traced to a single person who was tortured and lynched by an angry mob of white people in revenge for ‘stepping out of line’ and daring to have an affair with a white woman he was hired to paint a portrait of. To borrow a phrase from the film itself, Candyman is a whole damn hive in this new instalment, which arguably brings new colours to the conversation. Candyman is still a concept and an element of oral history of the continuing persecution of black minorities. It is a thematic kneejerk reaction to the ceaseless police brutality, which reverberates ever stronger in the wake of many high profile instances of real police brutality against African Americans.

What is more, as the very ending and the shadow puppet story accompanying the end credit sequence seem to indicate, the Candyman iconography and the entire mythos ends up bent to serve the film’s aggressive political stance. As such, the titular character becomes an equivalent of a call to arms, a threatening finger pointed at the white folks in the room, telling them their chickens have come home to roost and what will follow is not going to be pretty. Although it is an interesting direction to take this mythology, I’d like to see what Clive Barker thinks of this because what DaCosta and Peele are doing while gentrifying the Candyman lore might be misconstrued as a hostile takeover. Again, this is not gospel and there’s nothing wrong with reshaping and refreshing this lore, but I think some Candyman purists might actually agree that the spirit of the original is well on the way to be drowned out by the roar of the political messaging accompanying the new film.

Finally – and this is something that actually bugs me a little – the filmmakers took some brave liberties with what I always considered untouchable elements that make Candyman what it is: the mechanics and purpose of the mirror chant and the interpretation of its aftermath. It was arguably a stroke of storytelling genius to bake the legend of Bloody Mary into the story (in the original novella it was enough to just think about Candyman to invoke him) because it gave it an element of a dare. It was a pinnacle of unchecked curiosity to dare invoke the spirit of Candyman – the repressed historic memory of unjust racist violence – because it was an invitation to reckon with this past. And as the legend stated, the invocation of Candyman would always result in the person daring to conjure him dying in an abrupt and violent manner. What is interesting about the way the new film tackles this idea is that (for the most part) the only people daring to say ‘Candyman’ five times in front of a mirror are white. This of course is purposeful and illustrative to the cultural arrogance and a sense of superiority of the white people in this film. They don’t believe anything could happen to them. They are the apex predators in here so how exactly is a harmless piece of voodoo going to harm them, right? Well, they all learn the lesson. In fact, in the scene in the school bathroom it becomes abundantly clear that the Candyman chant is recalibrated towards enabling exhilarating racial vengeance. The black teenager is spared and observes through a mirror reflection how her implied abusers receive their comeuppance.

Eventually, Candyman evolves to become something else entirely, a tool in the hands of others. In the climactic finale, which is somewhat undercut by the heavy-handed writing, Anthony becomes the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the Candyman spirit, or at least this is what William (Colman Domingo) wants him to be, until he is brutally gunned down by the police in a symmetrical scene to what happens in the beginning of the film. This is followed by what I can only call the cherry on the cake of gentrification and demolition of the Candyman mythos, as Brianna (Teyonah Parris) incandescent with rage and overcome by desire for vengeance, invokes the Candyman herself… which breaks the one cardinal rule of the mythos as the spirit shows up and kills everyone but the person who dared say his name five times. I know you might think I am being precious about a throwaway element of lore, but this is important because the filmmakers have effectively demolished a historic monument defining the spirit of the gentrified neighbourhood and now whatever comes to replace it will be void of its historic footprint. Candyman is now a superhero and the chant is the Bat-Signal you turn on when vengeance must be had. He has been re-appropriated. Reclaimed. Redeveloped. Gentrified.

Thus, I can only expect the future of this series to drift further away from its roots now that the mythos has been effectively untethered from what you could argue was a set of its defining tenets. Although in isolation the movie works fine, the way it callously handles the legacy upon which it builds its own version of this oral history makes the new Candyman a victim of self-inflicted irony. While talking about gentrification, social injustice and racial retribution, the filmmakers seemingly either forgot or wilfully disregarded the memory of its predecessors as they were busy advancing their political message which was quite clearly the only thing they cared about when they were making this movie in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: the new Candyman is good. But is it good enough to arrogantly displace the original?

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