The "Candyman" Reboot Subverts Cinematic Tropes of Black SufferingBreaking News
tags: film, African American history, popular culture, cultural history, horror movies, Cinema
At one point in the long-awaited new film Candyman, billed as a “spiritual sequel” to the 1992 cult horror flick by the same name, a character is heading toward an inevitable confrontation with the monster. We’ve seen this moment a thousand times. The character knows now that evil is afoot. She knows that it’s of a supernatural variety. Blood has been shed. Her every step is measured and cautious. We can hear the creaking. We are tensed, ready for the jump scare. She comes upon a door, slowly opens it. On the other side is a long stairwell leading down to an eerie cellar. We know that she must go down there. She knows that she must go down there. She considers the dark path before her for a moment before gently but decisively shutting the door.
“Nope,” she says.
Watching a screener, I imagined audiences losing it at this particular moment. How many times have we watched horror films in which the protagonist makes the inexplicable choice to go further into danger just to find out what’s down there? For Black viewers, this habit is racialized: This is white-people shit, the joke goes. They obviously don’t have enough to be afraid of in real life, so they go around looking for dangerous situations, opening the door, releasing the curse, unsealing the tomb. There’s a reason “Fuck around and find out” and its cousin, “Play stupid games, win stupid prizes,” are Black proverbs. The protagonist and the creators of the new Candyman—co-written by Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, and Nia DaCosta, who also directs—are not here to play stupid games.
The original Candyman, an adaptation by the British filmmaker Bernard Rose of the British writer Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” was explicitly conceived and directed through a white gaze. The new Candyman is the first horror feature distributed by a major studio to be directed by a Black woman, DaCosta. During the making of it, she was intensely conscious that Black pain has always been a lucrative source of content for Hollywood but is rarely handled with enough consideration to keep it from effectively and constantly re-traumatizing Black viewers. “My concern is really getting into what the film is about and who the film is for,” she told me via email. “With a film like this, that traffics in Black pain and trauma, it’s imperative that it is told from a Black POV; it’s imperative that we consider the audience for whom this film could be harmful, and that we are very careful about execution.”
DaCosta and her collaborators had their work cut out for them. In the original Candyman, Rose imports Barker’s tour de force of mood and shiver—a story that works as both a chiller and a meditation on class in Barker’s native Liverpool—to America, swapping in race for class. In the short story, a white academic traipses into the “drear canyons” of council housing to study graffiti, and residents there begin to tell her tales of horror that they say no one else has believed. In Rose’s film, a white academic traipses into Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects, where Black families report being terrorized by a Black serial killer who returns from the dead when his name—Candyman (he comes bearing candy)—is invoked five times in front of a mirror. Racially speaking, the results can most generously be described as cringeworthy.
The projects in Rose’s Candyman are an apocalypse, home to an egregious liberal fantasy of an oppressed and impoverished underclass. Kindhearted single mothers who work low-wage jobs deliver monologues in a theatrical Ebonics. Orphaned children roam the streets. The mass of Black families is treated as a nameless, faceless, childish people prone to superstitions and living under the shadow of an unforgiving god. The film offers up a racialized poverty Kabuki in which pain is the chief characteristic of Blackness. It doesn’t help that the imagined backstory for Candyman, dreamed up by Rose, is that he was violently murdered for lusting after a white woman, as if even in our victimization, proximity to whiteness remains a forbidden prize.
Horror noire, the 2019 documentary on Black horror based on Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same title, proposes that one of the first mainstream films in the genre was not billed as one. D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, dramatizes the heroic—in its view—formation of the Ku Klux Klan, which rides to the rescue of white people everywhere when a libidinous Black man named Gus (portrayed in blackface) assaults a fragile white woman. If horror plays on the audience’s fears as a means of entertainment, The Birth of a Nation would have done so in entirely opposite ways for the country’s Black and white viewers. For white people, the character of Gus functioned as something like a predecessor to Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street, an unrepentant monster who is coming for you and all that you love unless he is stopped. The film depicts the ultimate lynching of Gus as a valiant and noble act. Shortly after its release, the movie was screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson and his Cabinet. The Birth of a Nation is still considered path-breaking, one of the most important films in early American cinema. Therein lies the horror for the country’s Black population.