Nia DaCosta's Candyman is a sequel to the 90’s folklore villain. The film is creative with its storytelling, handling pain and grief with care. The tale transforms into a way for this community to put a word to their pain. It is no longer about a villain terrorizing an already vulnerable community but instead, something to point to, to separate themselves from and move forward. Gabe explores the evolution of the notorious folklore villain turned vengeful spirit. Kat shares the film's Impact Guide and how to continue the work.
Sources in this Episode:
Other Reviews & Learning Opportunities for Candyman (2021):
Generational Trauma & History
Media from this week's episode:
A sequel to the horror film Candyman (1992) that returns to the now-gentrified Chicago neighborhood where the legend began.
Director Nia DaCosta
Candyman (2021): How Generational Trauma Haunts the Whole Damn Hive by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Candyman (2021) is a sequel to the 90’s folklore villain. The film is creative with its storytelling, handling pain and grief with care. It’s also captivating to watch. We encounter the ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ in mirrored images, DaCosta plays with these two realities nicely. Revealing his menacing presence and gruesome acts and mirroring them (pun intended) with an absent foe in the real world.
In the beginning, we revisit Cabrini-Green, first catching a glimpse of the place during the time period of the first movie, the Chicago projects bustling with activity. After a young boy’s experience with a sinister candy man, we are propelled into the present. Artist Anthony McCoy and his partner Brianna are having a dinner party. Here we are reintroduced to the Candyman lore, reminded of the plot of the first film following Helen Lyle. Lyle had worked to uncover the folklore behind Candyman and its effect on the vulnerable population, however, her interpretation came from that of an outsider. When her tale was reshaped by the minds and mouths of the residents of Cabrini-Green, she was no longer the strong, heroine who succumbed to the charms of Tony Todd (who could blame her) but is now the nosy, white savior turned baby-stealing villain who preyed upon the housing unit.
This spin on the story leads to a conversation about the real horrors the people of Cabrini-Green were facing, that of gentrification. Their story of Candyman and Helen Lyle’s monstrous headlines marked the community too troubled to exist and so it ceased. Artists and well-to-dos in Chicago sweeping in to buy the land and property for cheap while pricing out the community who called the place home for generations.
Inspired by the depressing tale of gentrification (and ignoring his own part in it), McCoy begins a new art installation based of the tale titled, Say My Name. He beckons viewers to participate and calls upon the entity. As explained in the first and this one, one must only speak his name 5 times in a mirror to call him forward. A mirror sits on a wall, when opened it reveals a complicated and graphic portrayal of Black pain. His art is scoffed at and he eventually gets into an altercation with someone and leaves. However, his piece has already set in motion the ancient, forgotten tradition of summoning him (I can’t say his name anymore, I’ve hit the limit of what’s allowed so I will now call him “The Sweets Man”). The sleeping beast is reawakened by a horny art assistant and the rest is history.
After a visit to the now desolate Cabrini-Green, McCoy meets William Burke, a previous resident of Cabrini and the boy who saw the guy with candy in the beginning. It is here we learn something important about the Sweets Man. Burke reveals more of the story that we had seen in the beginning, like Helen Lyle’s experience, we had only a limited view to work with which influenced our interpretations of the events. We had seen a young boy afraid of this man with candy, screaming before cutting away. Burke explains that after that initial scream, one of surprise and not expectant demise, he was given candy by the nice man before returning up the stairs. Burke explains that his Sweets Man had been Sherman, this man who would often gift the children candy. Only recently, Sherman has been hiding and on the run after a razor blade was found in a white child’s candy. Clearly, he would be the expected culprit. Burke’s initial scream had alerted the police to Sherman’s location, resulting in them murdering him, having expected him to be the villain. At first, we had been led to believe that Sherman was a villain, that he had scared young Burke and intended harm. Now, we are shown the truth, we see not only his innocence but also the cruelty he suffered due to the same limited point of view.
Burke then goes on to explain that the Sweets Man is not a singular man at all. “Candyman is not a “he”…Candyman is the whole damn hive.” He is not one villainous man but rather a history of men. He is an idea, a trauma, an inherited pain, and a word of caution. The ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ is each Black man who was wrongfully accused of a crime and murdered for it. The ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ is generational trauma made manifest and in this revelation, this more distinct ownership of him as a folkloric protector elevates him from the limited interpretation of the first one. It is for this point that I truly appreciated the film. Director Dacosta explains the depth of ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ’s influence and her intention in making this film. “Candyman is so perennial. We’re talking about the cycles of violence and how history repeats itself and how we collectively process trauma through stories. It’s always time to tell a story like Candyman. Which is the big tragedy about the tale in the first place.”
The rest of the film follows McCoy as he spirals, followed by the entity and seemingly becoming him. As an artist, he had attempted to create something from the pain only to be called cliche by a critique. Later, when the Sweets Man is killing off idiots who dare speak his name, she pivots and invites McCoy in for an exclusive interview. Now she is interested in the work as it is now tied directly to violence on white bodies, it's sensational. She asks him about his work around gentrification and his experiences in the “hood.” to which he responds vehemently, "Who do you think makes the hood? The city cuts off a community and waits for it to die. Then they invite developers in and say, 'Hey, you artists, you young people, you white, preferably or only… please come to the hood, it’s cheap. And if you stick it out for a couple of years, we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.'" Gentrification was a strong critique in the first one and that follows through in the sequel, only the story is elevated from a distant view and instead, drops us into the community directly. Gentrification is a direct evil and is tied to the systemic pain enacted on Black and poor communities but the larger picture evolves away from this one aspect of the trauma in Cabrini-Green's legacy.
As a teaser, one of the trailers released for this film featured shadow puppet recreations of the stories Burke shares plus some others that you can catch in the credits of the film. These shadow stories are based on real-life instances of Black men being harmed and punished for crimes they did not commit. This exploration of the character was creative and finally addressed some of the complaints I had about the first one.
Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen who plays Anthony McCoy agreed that this shift from Helen’s perspective to that of the community members affected was important. In an interview with Digital Spy, he said, “I’m really happy that this film is talking about the subject of unwilling martyrs and the trauma placed on the bodies of the Black community and the trauma within the Black experience at the hands of white violence and what we can do with that.”
For Lyle, Tony Todd’s villain was singular, a monster she had to reckon with or succumb to. For people like McCoy and Burke, the character was a catharsis. Burke explains, "Candyman is a way to deal with the fact that these things happened to us, are still happening!" further after sharing the story of Tony Todd’s ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ that, “A story like that - a pain like that, lasts forever.”
The tale transforms here into a way for this community to put a word to their pain. It is no longer about a villain terrorizing an already vulnerable community but instead, something to point to, to separate themselves from and move forward. How else could you put generations of pain and injustice into words? We have seen the true monster change shape throughout history from militia’s hunting runaway enslaved people to the modern-day police force. The pain and the stain on environments like Cabrini-Green is deep, its been festering and insidious, tormented by this cyclical violence on Black bodies. The history of the Candy Men acts as an echo, a haunting in our country that isn’t going anywhere if we don’t learn to speak its name, to speak truth to power.
Tananarive Due contextualizes this taking back of the folklore in a discussion that served as an accompaniment to the film, Candyman - The Impact of Black Horror, saying, “Really what was fueling a lot of the fear around him was the fear of Black masculinity, Black men, fear of the urban jungle. I mean Cabrini-Green itself is a monster. Really, some of the worst stereotypes around blackness. So it was very important for Nia DaCosta and Monkeypaw to come and reframe a story about Black trauma through a Black lens, not through a White one.”
In the end, McCoy successfully revives the folkloric monster, this time transforming him into a weapon for justice. Burke orchestrates an attack on McCoy, influencing his murder by police which turns him into the new ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ. Later, Brianna speaks his name, invoking him as that weapon for protection against the true villains, the police. She is told to continue this story, to tell everyone, and spread the tale of ᶜᵃⁿᵈʸᵐᵃⁿ so that he can live on. Only now he is no longer a symbol of fear but instead, a symbol of vengeance.
Inspiring Change Through Education: Exploring the Candyman Companion Guide by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
Nia DiCosta’s Candyman 2021 does something that we love to see in the media. It gives the viewer next steps, and uses its platform to share resources and highlight artists, creatives, and advocates making impact. In the closing credits of the film, we the audience are provided a link: https://www.candymanmovie.com/impact/syllabus/
When you go to that link you find an array of information all relevant to the film as well as history. It is something that pops up at the end of the film for a few seconds on screen so it’s easy to miss it if you aren’t at home with a pause button ready. I’ve decided to dedicate my section to the information they share, highlighting it so more people know. And also so that like the film asks us as the audience to do, tell everyone- let's talk about Candyman.
Something I really wanna say is if instead of listening to me say these words, if you wanna read them yourself, I recommend that, as well as checking out the video Candyman - The Impact of Black Horror- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VKtExlE_Ec&t=4s where amazing humans unpack Candyman, the story, the legend, the generational trauma that influenced the film, and the impact everything all has. They really get into all of it in the video and it honestly was just a really great resource to watch/listen to. I appreciate that the film in collaboration with many nonprofit organizations, leaders and experts, as well as advocates gave the audience such clear and intentional path to next steps.
First I’ll unpack the official companion guide- which is a recourse “To help audiences to go deeper into the themes of CANDYMAN, Monkeypaw Productions and Universal Pictures collaborated with Langston League, an educational curriculum firm that specializes in culturally responsive instruction materials, to create The Official Companion Guide: An Exploration of Themes. With special insight from educators, Professor Tananarive Due and Professor John Jennings, this tool helps fans explore the legend of CANDYMAN and Black culture.”
The guide opens with the statement that reinforces why I chose to highlight it during my section. It gives the instruction to Tell Everyone:
THIS GUIDE IS A TOOL OF YOUR OWN MAKING. DO WITH IT AS YOU WISH. QUOTE IT. DEBATE IT. HIGHLIGHT IT. WRITE IN IT. DEVOUR THE RESOURCES. THIS GUIDE GRANTS YOU ACCESS TO THE INNERMOST THOUGHTS OF EDUCATORS OF BLACK HISTORY, GENRE EXPERTS, AND THE HORROR-OBSESSED. WE'VE IMMERSED OURSELVES IN THE RECLAMATION OF CANDYMAN AND WE HAVE QUITE A LOT TO SAY. TELL EVERYONE.
The curriculum throughout is created in collaboration with the Langston League, an organization that operates as A MULTI-CONSULTANT CURRICULUM FIRM THAT SPECIALIZES IN DESIGNING CULTURALLY RELEVANT INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIAL, AT THE INTERSECTION OF BLACK HISTORY & POP CULTURE, FOR MULTIGENERATIONAL STUDENTS.
Their website offered a few other companion guides for other films and shows like lovecraft country, the big payback, and a project called Wakanda Unscripted which is a free, two-part guide by Black and Latinx curriculum designers exploring STEM connections to Marvel’s Black Panther franchise.
As a newer organization, they started these collaborations in 2016, and their website had links to other resources like their youtube educational channel called Decolonized. “Decolonized is our Youtube series featuring history instruction designed to be a flexible resource for aspiring and current late elementary and middle-grade students. “Decolonized” provides students, families, and stakeholders with various strategies for closely examining, questioning, and analyzing primary sources. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXf1b-DRCZQ&list=PLJvqjbLAse8IlqoSzhzfqaODa-RIwf0KX
To get back to the Candyman curriculum, it opens with a foreword by Professor Tananarive Due.
Professor Tananarive Due is an American author, executive producer of Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, and UCLA lecturer. She is best known as a film historian with expertise in Black horror. Nia DaCosta’s CANDYMAN could be titled CANDYMAN:RECLAMATION. A reclamation of our story. A reclamation of our history. A reclamation of our trauma. In adapting Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,”which takes place in Liverpool as an examination of urban myths and classism,1992’s CANDYMAN transplanted the story to a struggling community in the United States, specifically Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project.
DaCosta’s CANDYMAN is a genuinely terrifying film that both asks and answers questions such as: What is the impact of generational and community trauma? What is the relationship
between art and trauma? What hauntings result when an entire community becomes a ghost? How do you depict Black fears without retraumatizing audiences or creating fear of Blackness?
Section 1: Myth & Folklore: Pages 10-18
At the beginning of the film, Troy Cartwright (as played by Nathan
Stewart-Jarrett), sets the stage in a way the diaspora is used to. In a moment of collectivism, surrounded by family and friends, he encircles the group to tell the tale of a grad student doing anthropological work around Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. He is passing down a story to unknowing peers, a practice bestowed upon us through the Mande Empire of Mali in Africa and beyond. At first it appears that Troy is CANDYMAN’s griot: a storyteller or oral historian that preserves our stories and traditions. By candlelight, he weaves the myth of Helen Lyle—a woman said to have “snapped” and taken several Black lives and a rottweiler. As we resume the film, we realize that Troy is a participant in a game of telephone—mistakenly identifying Helen as the serial killer in the urban legend of CANDYMAN.
The story's griot is truly William Burke (as played by Colman Domingo) a connoisseur of the spin cycle at the laundromat—what feels like a metaphor for CANDYMAN’s iterations and generational trauma. William’s exposure to CANDYMAN's legacy at an early age establishes an understanding of his story’s need to be told. We realize that CANDYMAN isn’t just an urban legend, but a warning to be taken seriously, a culmination of real tragedies that have happened throughout CANDYMAN’s Cabrini- Green history—stories that would go untold without generations remembering to “tell everyone.” “CANDYMAN is how we deal with the fact that these things happened—that they’re still happening.”
With the intention of preserving all the original messages from this guide and, to avoid the telephone or whisper down the lanes things that get missed in rewriting is the main reason I chose to quote the guide directly so often.
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
In Troy Cartwright’s recounting of Helen Lyle’s demise, he notes that she came to Cabrini-Green “asking questions and taking pictures of graffiti and people.” Lyle’s work noted here and in the original movie, is very much like the “three-walled room” that author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston speaks of. Hurston defined many Black American spaces as “rooms with one wall missing, exposing their lives to the white man’s intentions and inspection.”
In February of 1927, Hurston made her way to the Gulf States to preserve our stories through community griots. With a pistol in tow
and a car named Sassy Susie, Hurston navigated the Jim Crow South collecting the songs, stories, dances, and traditions of Black people. Hurston’s work began in Eatonville, Florida, a self-governed Black town from which she hailed. She described Eatonville as a “four walled room,” a space mostly bereft of outside interference.
The antithesis of Helen Lyle, Hurston's preserving of our stories exemplified our self-determination, centering our full selves, dialect, folklore, collectivism, and all. Works such as “Barracoon” and “Every Tongue Got to Confess” are living legacies to this work.
The guide continues and highlights work from W. E. B. Du Bois: A Recorded Autobiography and his reflection on the disturbing acts of violence that were inflicted upon a real Black man named Sam Hose. Du Bois’ recollection of his experience in the market highlighted within the above linked audio clip, the guide says shows “us that CANDYMAN’s origin story, which also involves a lynching and severing of an arm, is a real American horror story.”
The guide goes on to highlight a nonprofit organization called the Confess Project that aims to support mental health in Black men and boys using the Barbershop as a resource and setting: https://www.theconfessprojectofamerica.org/history .
“Barbershops are pertinent to Black communities and are often a space of lively, social interactions, storytelling, and healing camaraderie. Having conversations while grooming brings calmness to many, in which barbers are centered as healers too. The Confess Project Coalition exemplifies this cultural tradition with its mission. The Confess Project is committed to building a mental health culture for boys, men of color, and their families through capacity building, advocacy, organizing, and movement building. We believe in a world without barriers to stigma and shame. The organization prides itself on being 'America's First Mental Health Barbershop Movement,' in which they offer to train those interested in becoming barbers and equip them with the necessary tools related to mental health advocacy. In addition, barbers are taught the importance of active listening, positive communication, validation, and how to reduce mental health stigma when servicing and interacting with clients.”
On their website they have linked resources that I’ll also highlight here that extend the mental health services further: https://www.theconfessprojectofamerica.org/resources
The Langston League in the companion guide interviews the Confess project’s founder - Lorenzo Lewis and they discuss the future goals of the organization. Lorenzo Lewis says “In the next three years our goal is to train 5,000 barbers, and at the end of this year we would've trained 1,000 barbers. Right now we're pushing the #RoadtoOneMillion campaign and we're in partnership with Gillette. We want to reach a million people by the end of December 2021 because, with 1,000 barbers, each of those barbers can reach up to 100 clients per month. Our goal is to reach people through the training of advocacy, conversations, and dialogue in the barber's chair. We've also been able to partner with Harvard University and have done research with them over the last year to show how barbers are becoming mental health gatekeepers, especially in this racially distrust era of COVID-19.”
They close out this section of the companion guide with the prompt and space to write out words, stories, phrases, myths, legends, and griots that hold meaning to the viewer. So if you want to experience this guide in earnest you can download it here.
Section Two: Exploring Gentrification in Candyman and Beyond:
“A few years ago, Langston League held a workshop in a neighborhood that had very few Black residents. The school was emphatic about the urgency of teaching decolonized Black history to their students. After discussing ways to surface history in their area with students, a teacher raised her hand and said, “This is a historically white neighborhood. We would have difficulty finding Black history here.” On our way to the school, we noticed an African Methodist Episcopal Church a few blocks away. The church was established in the 1800s. Based on several of our history research trips, we know that where there is an A.M.E. Church, there are Black people and Black history.
The presence of Black churches has always been evidence of our roots in a community. Anthony holds up an outdated image of a Missionary Baptist Church in Cabrini-Green. The mural once painted above its door depicts imagery of diverse peoples alongside names of figures who are synonymous with tragedy and triumph: Malcolm X, Anne Frank, Dr. King, and more. The mural was painted in 1972 by a prominent Black muralist and Chicagoan named William Walker. It was a piece heralded up until its very last moment when preservationists discovered it had been whitewashed by painters. The church’s whitewashing feels like a metaphor for our continued displacement at the hands of urban renewal, development induced displacement, and gentrification. It is a reminder of our continued erasure, despite mounting evidence that we have always been here and always will be.”
Phenom, a Chicago-based artist, calls Cabrini-Green Homes “The Greens.” The metaphor isn’t lost on us, as he describes how each distinct neighborhood on Cabrini-Green’s map takes its own shape and assists or hinders its residents’ growth. Phenom describes a community different from the glimpse we see in CANDYMAN: “As a kid in Cabrini-Green, you’re not focused on the violence. We saw grandmothers, aunties, people getting in motion to head to the grocery store to celebrate holidays. Everybody was living and ready for the feast. When it was good, it was really good, and when it was bad, it was really bad.” Phenom then emphasizes that while some days were tough—even remembering a Halloween moment with parents fearing razor blades in trick-or-treat candy—the fear fueled the community’s defense. As a result, families became overprotective, rummaging through candy bags and ensuring kids traveled in herds and made them closer. “Everything was in a four-block radius,” he says. “My school, my church, my girlfriend, my best friend, my grandparents on both sides, and my aunties and uncles.” Phenom describes a daily routine, bouncing from house to house, collectivism, and care all around him and others. He says his favorite memory is an uncle whom many respected and feared through the neighborhoods; an uncle who would stop to wipe his nose if he thought it was runny. “He was presumably a goon and a big dude, but he had a soft side. So that’s important too.” Phenom says he channels the community care he felt in Cabrini-Green in his work as an emcee, educator, poet, and leader. A major part of Phenom’s life’s work is a Chicago-based organization he founded for young emcees, aptly named EmceeSkool. EmceeSkool’s objective is to develop a social-creative-arts initiative designed to strengthen young teaching artists in the fundamentals of becoming sustainable and impactful assets to their community and family via organizing through the arts. In addition, Emceeskool serves as a restorative justice and violence prevention strategy.