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Directed by Nia DaCosta
Written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld and Nia DaCosta
Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Colman Domingo
Classification R, 91 minutes
Available in theatres Aug. 27
In a time when film and television continues to advance what can only be referred to as the Jordan Peele Industrial Complex – wherein we are reminded with every piece of press and marketing copy of the writer-director’s involvement in any project he so much as looks at – where does influence end and authorship begin?
This question was on the minds of many in advance of Nia DaCosta’s 2021 revisioning of the nineties horror classic, Candyman. The trailer was promising and, combined with the film’s long-delayed release, it was easily one of the most anticipated movies of the year.
Produced and co-written by Peele, his credits on the new title overshadowed the work of the film’s own director, DaCosta – an example of a phenomenon that is all too familiar to many Black women.
This is why it is difficult for me to not want to give DaCosta, a relatively fresh filmmaker here only on her second feature film, the benefit of the doubt. I wonder in which ways, within the stormy conflux of production politics, industry power and a marketing strategy so intent on centring the contributions of Peele, her vision was realized.
The original Candyman film, written and directed by Bernard Rose and based on a story by Clive Barker (the pen behind 1987′s Hellraiser), remains a touchstone film for horror audiences – particularly Black horror fans. Its whispery meditations on race, class, gender and gentrification were drawn out with both ease and complexity, and pivotal to the film’s narrative in a way that never felt didactic. Accompanied by an elegant score by Philip Glass and a canonical performance from beloved cult actor Tony Todd, 1992′s Candyman is masterful – chilling and spine-tingling in the most embodied sense.
DaCosta’s Candyman figures itself as a present-day continuation of the earlier film’s histories. Here, our focus lies with Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a successful artist heralded as “the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene.” McCoy and his partner Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) – a notable, mid-career curator who is in the midst of being scouted by prestigious art world movers and shakers – are the picture of the contemporary Black elite. McCoy’s work is shown alongside that of established artists Torkwase Dyson, Theaster Gates and Arnold Kemp, a detail that too obviously attempts to convince us of both the specific cultural positioning and critical success of his work. It is work by a Black artist, about Black life, that has been championed by Black and white audiences and critics alike and that enjoys a heralded status within the institution.
McCoy, beckoned by the tale of Candyman told to him over dinner one evening, returns to the original site of the haunting figure – the Cabrini-Green projects – as an artist in search of inspiration. Much like the 1992 film’s Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), his purposes here are extractive. He is part researcher, part anthropologist in search of a lore, if not muse, that is only quietly spoken of within community. The film is promising in these first acts, pointing toward the potential of a toothy class analysis of the Black cultural elite who too often farm out the experiences of the Black working class as cultural product to be sold or otherwise enshrined in capital.
However, the film’s failure to properly engage with or even act on this potential characterizes far too many of its later movements. The kernels of complex ideas regarding race, class and gender are too often thrown out at us without consideration for their full breadth and form. We are told of anti-Black racism through obvious platitudes such as “they love what we make but not us,” which are peppered throughout the film, as if Black audiences need such reminders. By the time Candyman reaches its end, its final confused narrative act makes sense only in as much as such contradictions of story and thought have governed the film’s overall logic.
In its attempts to revisit the original film’s discrepancies, DaCosta’s film ends up only retracing its narrative inconsistencies with full force and even deeper perplexity. Gone is the alluring entanglement of erotics and fright, replaced here by flat characters limply stumbling over a script intent on hitting us over the head with its social commentary. Devoid of life likewise is the city of Chicago itself as well as the Cabrini-Green projects, which were previously rendered in Rose’s film as an alchemistic system of worlds within an invisibilized architecture.
Particularly damning is the film’s all too literal invocation of “Say His Name.” The pit-of-the-belly urgency inspired by the Candyman’s summoning request of “say my name” in both films already invokes such haunting resonances between past fictions and present realities, but here – as is customary within the film – overly pedantic political statements that trade on Black life and death, and Black bodies that endure both, attempt to add an ill-conceived depth to its already tenuous storyline.
Aims at integrating the original film’s critiques with a more intergenerational view of the systemic nature of anti-Black violence are too obvious and poorly initiated. DaCosta’s Candyman asks us to question the reliability of certain narrators and, in the same breath, establishes itself as an uninformed one. It asks us to see Black women as inheriting the legacies of Black men – of being, far too simply, the caretakers of their histories – while relying on the market value of Peele to the point of disturbing the perceived autonomy of its director.
The world that McCoy and Cartwright live in is shaped by the virulent capitalistic desire to willfully misunderstand and cash in on the latest Black success; here, original thought is made palatable to white audiences and critics that are in search of supposedly thought-provoking content to affirm their liberal educations. It is a failed statement on Black art-making that, unfortunately, comes to describe the film itself.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)
Sept. 1. This version has been updated.