This article contains spoilers.
It’s a dinner party in a two-story luxury condo in Chicago’s Near North side. Floor to ceiling windows and state-of-the-art amenities adorn the two-story unit, home to successful art agent Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris) and her partner, the up-and-coming artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The young black couple’s dinner guests are Cartwright’s brother, Troy (Nathan Stuart-Jarret) and his white boyfriend, Grady (Kyle Kaminski), who live a similar yuppie lifestyle in the kind of swanky condos popping up all over Chicago so fast, and so uniform in design, one could be forgiven for thinking they were purchased at IKEA. The conversation turns to the Cabrini-Green housing projects, which once stood on the same ground. It was an expansive sprawl of public housing high-rises and barrack style row houses once sandwiched between the two prosperous white neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and the Gold Coast. Cartwright schools her brother’s boyfriend on gentrification, the finance-fueled process to tear down the black neighborhood and replace it with housing for the gentry. “Sort of like you guys?” he responds. Silence reigns.
Over drinks, Troy recounts the urban legend of Candyman, a ghost of a lynching victim who terrorized the Cabrini-Green housing projects, including a skeptical white graduate student named Helen who accidentally summoned him through her research. The story piques the interest of McCoy, who has grown increasingly frustrated by the white art world’s tokenization of black artists and is seeking new inspiration. McCoy’s curiosity leads him to what’s left of Cabrini-Green and to the very grounds where Helen and Candyman perished in a fiery blaze. There he meets one of its black residents, William Burke (Colman Domingo) who is still living in one of the remaining row houses. Burke sets the record straight about who Candyman really was. As a child living in Cabrini-Green in the 1970s, Burke witnessed the police murder an older black man who was accused of a crime he didn’t commit: sticking razors in children’s candy. Candyman is not just a black artist lynched for fathering a child with a white woman, nor a villain hell bent on terrorizing black residents of Cabrini-Green and obsessing over white middle class women who traverse the taboo of entering the ghetto. Instead, he is an avatar for all the black victims of racist violence, especially at the hands of the cops.
McCoy becomes obsessed with this iteration of the Candyman story, and his art reflects this new found political consciousness. But whereas anti-racist cliches had made him a rising star, the white art world is less forgiving of his art installation “Say My Name,” which invites the viewer to look in the mirror and summon Candyman by saying his name five times. This method for invoking Candyman, who is said to appear in swarm of bees, harkens back to the mythology of the 1992 film, to which DaCosta is faithful. A famous white critic is initially uninterested in McCoy’s new art — until a string of unexplained murders throughout the city are connected to the exhibition. Unlike the Candyman of myth, however, the murders tied to McCoy are carried out against affluent white people. In contrast to the 1992 film, black characters are never in any real danger from the Candyman.
By this point, McCoy is undergoing his own transformation. Bees, a symbol of the racial terror that killed the original Candyman, appear to menace him as his mental state deteriorates. He becomes alienated from polite white society and his partner, who is on the verge of joining it. Most startling, McCoy beholds himself in the mirror as the Candyman. Thus, the threat Candyman poses to black characters is not that he will kill them, but that they will become him. This is the dramatic tension of the entire film, as Candyman’s actual murders are little more than comic relief. Will McCoy embrace his proximity to Candyman, the lower-class victim of white supremacist violence? And what will this require him to do?
In a strange twist of events, Burke kidnaps McCoy, cuts off his hand and forces him to wear a hook in its place, completing the transformation. When Cartwright begs the police to help McCoy, they instead shoot him dead. But the police do not stop there. The police threaten Cartwright, pressuring her to lie and say the shooting was justified. In this moment, she too transforms. Cartwright sheds the illusion that her social status protected her. She no longer seeks peace or reconciliation with the cops. Saying his name, she summons Candyman to kill them. In a climax clearly measured to please the crowd, Candyman massacres a squadron of Chicago police. When he’s finished, he turns to an approving Cartwright and provides simple instructions: “Tell everyone.”
It is no secret that black people have seldom been treated fairly in the horror genre. Besides outliers like Blacula, Ganja and Hess, and Night of the Living Dead, there are few black protagonists in a genre that illuminates the collective anxieties and fears that lurk just beneath the surface of ordinary American life. Token black characters, typically immersed in white social circles, are notorious for dying before some theatergoers have even taken their seats. A decade after the urban riots that shook American cities in the mid-1960s, an emergent genre — slasher films — reflected the anxiety of murder and serial killers lurking in the shadows of the supposedly crime-free streets of American’s suburbs. The most terrifying aspect of blockbuster franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th was the realization that sadistic and violent events could very well happen to anyone. Not even suburbia was safe from such violence.
The Candyman franchise is based on a 1985 short story “The Forbidden,” from horror writer and director Clive Barker’s Books of Blood series. Set in England, the original story follows Helen Buchanan, a thirsty young scholar whose search for sociology dissertation fodder takes her to the austere and violent world of a crumbling council estate in the age of Thatcher. “The Forbidden” explores the distance that Buchanan cannot traverse between her comfortable academic life and the harsh lives of the impoverished people on whose backs she hopes to advance her career. The plot is moved by Buchanan’s didactic drive to cut through the secrecy that enshrouds the estate, especially around the myth of the Candyman, who stands in for the pitiless violence of council estate life. The Candyman himself only appears at the end, seducing Buchanan to become his victim and achieve immortality as part of his myth. As a commentary upon crimson dramaturgy and mass culture’s obsession with sensational violence, “The Forbidden” is a fitting entry in the early days of horror’s postmodern turn. But as skillfully as it deals with English class society, Barker’s tale has little to say about race.
This dimension entered the lore through English director Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman. It follows Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), a Chicago graduate student undertaking a dissertation on urban legends. Like Barker’s Helen, this project brings Lyle across the proverbial tracks, to Cabrini-Green. There she discovers the persistent myth of the Candyman, who Rose reimagines as a black artist, and son of a slave, murdered by a lynch mob in the late 19th century for his relationship with the daughter of a wealthy white man. Candyman is unlike the pedophilic Freddy Kreuger or Clive Barker’s most famous creation, the queer libertine Pinhead of the Hellraiser franchise, whose amoral hedonism has made him a monster. By contrast, Candyman’s tragic past, and in particular, his creation by white supremacist violence, makes him a sympathetic character for mainstream audiences. Simultaneously, the film calls attention to the abandonment and neglect that characterizes life in America’s underfunded public housing. Yet Rose’s Candyman nonetheless terrorizes the black residents of Cabrini-Green, invading the precarious safety of their project homes to visit horrible violence on them, simply for chanting his name. Rose’s Candyman is a bloodthirsty black fiend who takes out his anger at society’s injustices on working-class black project residents, and is obsessed with seducing a white woman.
While the film earned a large black following, due in large part to featuring black characters who do not simply die in the film’s opening act, it also drew criticism from black filmmakers at the time. “The original film definitely fed into a fear of the black community, and the black man in particular,” Nia DaCosta told Time magazine. Black Chicagoans also expressed conflicting emotions over a movie that put Cabrini-Green on the Hollywood map but that also rescued the worst stereotypes about black life.
The 1992 Candyman was nonetheless a politically important film, as it shifted the spotlight of horror from the idyllic sleepy suburbs to the city, and public housing in particular, at a time when welfare was being gutted, the poor were left to fend for themselves, and national fears about crime, youth gang violence and “superpredators” made national headlines. But whereas the 1992 film Candyman offered up a sociological take on the plight of the inner city and resuscitated racist tropes, the 2021 reboot is a film thoroughly imbricated in the Black Lives Matter era, more specifically the George Floyd Rebellion of 2020. While the Candyman — and his newfound proclivity for appearing to those who chant his name in the mirror — cuts a gruesome figure throughout the film, the neglect of Cabrini-Green and the brutality of the Chicago Police Department emerge as the real horror. Central to this story is the figure of Cabrini-Green itself.
Ghosts of Cabrini-Green
In the era of the New Deal, public housing was considered a “leap into the middle class,” and a symbol of the postwar compromise between labor and capital. Cabrini-Green was built to replace the slum known as “Little Hell” due to the People’s Gas Light and Coke Company plant and the squalid and often violent conditions that shaped working class life around it. The area was infamous for organized crime, gang violence, underground dens and brothels operating in close proximity to wealthy areas of the city. Between 1910 and 1930 feuds broke out regularly between rival Irish gangs and Sicilian mafiosos for control over territory. But white ethnics were soon joined by African Americans looking for better opportunities engendered by America’s entry into World War I. The black population of Chicago grew exponentially in the early decades of the twentieth century, and the productive boom of World War II attracted a large number of black and white workers in need of affordable housing. The Chicago Housing Authority struggled to maintain the color line, and largely built public housing for black workers and families in black neighborhoods. When Cabrini-Green was built, racial quotas were put in place that limited the numbers of African American families. Sicilian gangs in the neighborhood terrorized newly arrived families. Over the decades, black families became the majority of residents in Cabrini-Green. In a thoroughly segregated city, this was one of the last places where wealthy white Chicagoans crossed paths with their poor black neighbors.
Black residents of Cabrini-Green were among those hit hard by deindustrialization in the 1970s and 1980s. The changing terrain of working-class black life amid these larger structural stressors was depicted in the 1975 film Cooley High. It begins with the Temptations’ “Baby Love,” a song about first love and heartbreak, over a wide shot of Lake Michigan framed by the iconic Chicago skyline and its high-rise apartments, before zooming in on the Cabrini-Green towers and its bleak row homes. The film was based on the real-life experiences of Cabrini-Green resident and writer Eric Monte who previously helped produce the TV show Good Times which was also set in the complex, and dealt with the social and economic problems facing its residents. The show’s opening credits offer a slice of life there: Temporary lay-offs / Easy credit rip offs / Scratchin’ and survivin’ / Hangin’ in and jivin’.
In 1970, two cops who were working as part of a community policing program to “build trust” with youth, the majority of Cabrini-Green residents, were shot by snipers. In 1981, crime and gang violence of Cabrini-Green was brought to the national spotlight when then Chicago Mayor Jayne Byrne moved into the projects with her husband to call attention to the area’s problems. But she barely lasted a few weeks before moving out. By the 1990s, the violence that engulfed Cabrini-Green was widely represented in mass culture as the outcome of the choices that residents made, not the decades of state abandonment and neglect. The projects were transformed into a symbol of all that’s “wrong” with urban America: crime, drugs and violence. Paying no attention to the political and economic context that produced crime in Cabrini-Green, the media focused inordinate attention on lurid and sensational stories of violent crime — an international preoccupation, which served as the basis for “The Forbidden” and the rest of the franchise.
As to how Barker’s tale wound up in Chicago, the 1992 Candyman is said to have been directly inspired by the gruesome murder of Ruthie Mae McCoy that took place in 1987 in the Grace Abbot Homes, another housing project not too far from Cabrini-Green. Fifty-two year old McCoy called 911 to alert the police that someone was breaking into her house through her bathroom cabinet mirror. The police arrived late, and even at the urging of neighbors who reported gunshots coming from McCoy’s apartment, refused to break in. The next day, worried neighbors called the police again and this time a half dozen cops arrived and knocked on McCoy’s apartment door, but promptly left when no one answered. The following day a housing official found McCoy dead. Three days prior to the film’s release, seven-year-old Dantrell Davis was shot and killed by a stray bullet while walking to school with his mom in Cabrini-Green by a gang member aiming to shoot a rival.
When Davis was shot and killed, half of Cabrini-Green’s population was under the age of 20 and only 9 percent had access to employment opportunities. Gangs like the Disciples, Vice Lords and Cobra Stones fought for control of the drug trade, sparking violence. As Lawrence Vale argues, the murder coincided with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA)’s Hope VI program which provided federal incentives to address the physical and management improvements, and social and community services in public housing. CHA chose Cabrini Extension North, the site of Davis’ murder but its plans to implement these federal lagged and ultimately failed. Davis’s murder sparked outrage about gang violence engulfing Cabrini-Green, and the Chicago Reader argued it was the “shot that brought the projects down.” This sentiment pinned the destruction of public housing on its residents, and not on state authorities that continued to neglect housing conditions and the real estate schemes which were closing in on the complex from every direction.
Contrary to such one-dimensional representation, life for black residents of Cabrini-Green was more complicated than the police blotters and media frenzy around gang violence. Amidst poverty and violence, black residents also etched out an ordinary existence. As Ben Austin documented in the book, High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, Cabrini-Green residents loved, built families, celebrated life, fought for their basic rights, and often looked out for each other. For example, Dolores Wilson recounted the story of how shortly after her son was murdered outside of the projects, she was approached by reporters who asked her if she felt unsafe with all the crime happening in Cabrini-Green. But Wilson responded that she never felt unsafe living inside Cabrini-Green, which she tenderly referred to as “my community.” Cabrini-Green residents like Wilson and others banded together to fight to save the towers, but ultimately lost that battle. Their defense of public housing didn’t mean that it was great, but that simply destroying public housing was taking things even further in the wrong direction. After years of litigation, many former Cabrini-Green residents recently won the right to return to Chicago’s public housing system.
Cabrini-Green residents lived with all the contradictions of life marred by poverty, racism and state violence. But to city officials, the high-rises were a stain of depravity in an otherwise glittery metropolis. In the same decades that the state abandoned its commitment to residents of Cabrini-Green, investment capital poured around the projects to gentrify the area. By the late 1990s, Cabrini-Green’s fate was sealed. In 1999, the CHA announced its ambitious Plan for Transformation which would demolish public housing in Chicago and replace them with mixed income housing. Mayor Richard M. Daley heralded this arrangement as one that would benefit poor families by exposing them to middle class values and culture. “I want to rebuild their souls,” he told reporters. Residents of Cabrini-Green received vouchers and were forced to move elsewhere. At the same time, the CHA aggressively enforced so-called one strike cases against tenants with pending criminal court cases, even when they were for low-level misdemeanors or had nothing to do with the primary lease holder. This made it possible to evict a large number of tenants and release the state agency from any responsibility to provide affordable housing. By 2011, all of Chicago’s high-rise public housing had been torn down, which, as scholar Roberto Apsholm argues, had the immediate effect of disrupting already established gang networks into smaller street cliques that would define contemporary Chicago gang violence. Politicians and reporters who had long feigned concern for the residents of Cabrini-Green cared little for their fates once they had been cleared out, and the project grounds largely flattened to make way for the gentry.
Candyman in the Era of Black Lives Matter
The 2021 Candyman reboot is short on subtlety. Its tagline, “Say his name,” is derived from a popular Black Lives Matter chant invoking the names of people slain by cops and vigilantes. The film itself is an extended seminar on special topics in contemporary US left-liberalism, with occasional attempts at horror that are largely bungled. It even concludes with a link to a sunny corporate website for the film’s “Social Impact Initiative,” boasting of its achievements in fostering diversity and inclusion. But Candyman’s loquacious politics and milquetoast political veneer, juxtaposed with its explosive conclusion, represent a fascinating bellwether of the liberal imagination amid a watershed moment in US politics.
The film is helmed by Little Woods writer and director Nia DaCosta. Little Woods is a well-crafted red state neo-noir in the vein of Winter’s Bone and Wind River. It explores progressive social issues (health care, abortion access, sexual assault) with a reasonably light touch. Curiously, the film steers almost entirely clear of the topic of race, despite the main character being a black woman living in rural North Dakota. Besides an obligatory scene involving a racially-profiling cop, the film’s protagonist is effectively a white character played by a black actress. To say DaCosta’s treatment of politics in Little Woods stands out in contrast to her take on Candyman is an understatement.
While Jordan Peele is only credited as a co-writer and producer of the Candyman reboot, it is difficult not to read into the film some of his pet themes — and a clear trajectory bridging his other films. Peele’s prior films revolve around the anxieties the black middle class has navigating a white world. Get Out represented an exquisite 104 minutes of hand-wringing about upward class mobility and the embrace of elite white society that menaces successful black entertainers in the US. While the horror of Get Out is driven by the dilemma of whether to accept upward social mobility, the horror of Us, by contrast, revolves around the potential loss of that status at the hands of rebellion from below. When the subterranean lumpen rises up, the Wilson family, the film’s black middle-class protagonists, are forced to both affirm and defend their hard-won social position against lower-class versions of themselves, who desire only violence and destruction. Their tenacity and resilience prove uniquely suited to fight off these ghoulish doppelgangers — in marked contrast to their white friends, who have been made soft by their pampered lives, and die almost instantly. The film dramatizes nicely the anxiety among affluent liberals that rebellion led by black workers and poor people will be inherently meaningless and destructive unless progressive forces like non-profits and Democratic political machines are able to take control. Peele’s provocative use of the protagonist’s doppelgangers as the film’s villains becomes especially interesting in light of the Candyman reboot, when McCoy begins to see the Candyman in his own reflection.
Like Us, Candyman begins with an affirmation of the social position of the black middle class. The affluent condo dwellers Cartwright and McCoy are even a step up from Us’s suburbanite Wilson clan. Similarly, though, a violent call from below shakes up their tenuous peace. But this time, the Candyman, clad in the rags emblematic of the lumpen (which is just the German word for “rag”) is not the enemy. His embrace of violence and illegality surely represents a challenge to the liberal democratic order in which Cartwright and McCoy have carved out a tenuous place. They are both on the verge, dramatized in Get Out, of attaining the acceptance of the white social order. But is this order worth defending? As Candyman’s victims — archetypes of obnoxious white people, one and all — begin to amass, not only do the walls between the black middle class and lumpen begin to blur, but McCoy himself quite literally becomes the Candyman, the violent rejection of the fraudulent racial equality of America’s liberal democratic order.
The Candyman reboot’s departure from DaCosta and Peele’s earlier work is the latest example of how resistance from below is shaping US popular culture. The George Floyd Rebellion has effected a seismic shift in US political consciousness, which has always appeared, however mediated, on its silver screens. The last place to look for profundity in Candyman, however, is the film’s pedantic sermons, which heap cliche upon shopworn left-Twitter cliche. Far more interesting is how these tired platitudes contrast with the film’s ultimate resolution. This contrast reveals something sinister lurking in what a growing number of Americans see when they look in the mirror. In contrast to Us — and the blockbuster hit Black Panther, which existed in the same moral economy — Candyman argues that the worst case scenario in US politics is not that a critical mass of black people violently reject liberal democracy, but that they don’t. “Tell everyone” — the time for nonviolence is over.
DaCosta’s Candyman is not a villain preying on innocent black people, but a victim of white supremacy and state violence, policing, and of housing neglect, who metes out righteous violence on affluent whites and the cops. This mirrors a shift in the mass movement’s conception of who and what is to blame for the disposability of black life in the United States, and accounts for the gulf cleaving Us and Get Out from this truly uncanny film. Those films were produced by the movement of 2014 that came to be called Black Lives Matter, which largely resigned itself to calling for the indictment and conviction of individual killer cops and a rehashing of the Civil Rights movement. By contrast, the George Floyd Rebellion, led by working-class black militants, took decisive aim at the system itself, attacking police precincts, courts, and the cops themselves. When the movement expressed itself in political terms, it was often in the vernacular of anti-capitalism and the radical social vision of abolitionism, which calls for doing away altogether with the social order that requires prisons and cops.
Candyman doesn’t spend too much time with the working-class black people who put themselves on the line in the summer of 2020, and instead focuses on the social climbers who serve as Peele’s central preoccupation. Candyman dramatizes their shifting social position in the figure of Cartwright and McCoy, whose earnest efforts to leave the problems of working-class black America behind them are stymied by the stubborn persistence of what Frantz Fanon called “the fact of blackness.” Even as they rub elbows with white elites and bask in material success, their simultaneous vulnerability to victimization by police tethers them to their social inferiors. The dramatic tension comes from how they will handle their class position, as both middle class and black in the United States in a moment of rebellion.
The rise of the black middle class was seen as one of the most significant achievements of the Civil Rights era. Decades later, unrelenting segregation and police violence are holding up a mirror that calls this triumph into question. Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd Rebellion posed the question of “which side are you on” not only to white Americans, but to countless numbers of black people who may have otherwise accepted the mirage of security through class mobility. And as Candyman shows, the black middle class can’t necessarily be counted on by ruling elites to ostracize the poor. The film demonstrates that the political terrain is shifting under our feet, faster than many people can even articulate what is happening to them.
When the family of Us is similarly confronted with their lower-class doppelgangers, they are a hostile force to be repelled in the name of defending their class status. By contrast, McCoy’s embrace of solidarity with lower-class black people, and his embrace of violence to right society’s wrongs, makes him the film’s hero. If the filmmakers’ intentions are expressed by the politics its characters espouse, Candyman escaped the control of its creators and painted an honest picture of a transitional moment in US society, when political consciousness is being challenged by rebellion from below, and people’s actions often reach far ahead of their words. Candyman thus allows us to glimpse the contradictions unfolding beneath the veneer of even the most business-friendly “social justice” politics. It is, in a word, the frightening reality on the other side of the mirror.