NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
When Nia DaCosta was a child in 1992 New York, you couldnt tell her that the villain in the original horror film Candyman didnt really exist. In fact, she vividly remembers the story of a woman who was killed in those days by someone who climbed through her bathroom mirror. It was something that we talked about because it happened at the projects behind my elementary school, the director said. So, for me growing up, Candyman was real. He wasnt coming from a movie.
It might sound like the naive belief of a young girl, but when you reconsider the brutal back story of Candyman a 19th-century Black male artist who was murdered by a mob of white men for falling in love with a white woman the legend feels startlingly real.
Its one reason DaCosta revisited that story with the new Candyman, starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony, a painter struggling to contend with a white art world as he becomes horrifyingly obsessed with the story of Candyman. His girlfriend and the director of the gallery that shows his work, Brianna (Teyonah Parris), wants to bury the legend and stop it from recurring.
The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan Peele and Win Rosenfeld, traveled to the Chicago neighborhood that was once home to the Cabrini-Green projects where the first movie was set, to absorb as much as she could about an area that is now almost completely gentrified. For her, it was about contextualizing a long history of racial atrocities that extend far beyond Candyman through the perspectives of both current and former residents. You really have to hold as many stories as possible in your hands before you figure out how to tell your singular story in the best way, DaCosta said.
The new film reexamines the myth and wrath of a man who has haunted this neighborhood for hundreds of years, even now in the new film when his story has almost faded into history. But say his name five times in a mirror and youll meet a bloody fate that wont be soon forgotten.
Its all about, My name is to be remembered, My story is to be remembered by this community in particular, DaCosta added. Because the community doesnt exist anymore, and gentrification changed the demographics of the community.
Calling from Britain, where she is shooting the superhero film The Marvels, the filmmaker talked about the cyclic nature of storytelling and legends in Black communities, paying respect to Cabrini-Green and the gargantuan undertaking that is Candyman. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q: There was an outpouring of love when it was announced that you were directing Candyman, yet your name was omitted from many initial headlines, which upset those fans. What was your reaction to all of that?
A: So, I try not to read anything because the bigger the things I do, the more pressure it is. The pressure can be so distracting and overwhelming, and it can stop you from doing well and consume the process. And, probably to a fault, I can be a bit self-deprecating. (Laughs) I was prepared for no one to care that I was a part of it. I didnt really think about it much until people on Twitter were like, Excuse me, its Nia DaCostas Candyman. I was like, Oh, thats really sweet. Im sure if it were another female filmmaker, I would have been doing the same thing. Like, Hey, you should probably be talking about the woman making the movie, not just the guy whos more famous.
Q: Speaking of navigating pressure, I would imagine taking on Candyman was daunting because fans are so protective of it. Did you have any hesitation?
A: I was really excited because Jordan Peele was co-writer and a producer no-brainer. So, I felt really safe in the process because Im a huge fan of his. But then, of course, reality sets in. Its not even, like, Oh, the fans really want ... Its a studio film. They have what they wanted to do, which is basically make a trillion dollars and be critically acclaimed. I think that was when I was like, Oh, no. Then you have the community that I made the movie for, which is my community in a macro sense the Black community. But then in the micro sense, a community Im not a part of, the Cabrini-Green community. So, there are a lot of people that you want to do well for, and that can be daunting. But I think I just wanted to end with an open heart and humility as a fan of the original Candyman, as well as a respect for what were portraying. I have to have faith that would guide me to do the best I could.
Q: What kind of research did you do on Cabrini-Green?
A: A book that was the first touchstone for me was High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing by Ben Austen. That was really amazing, because I like to have some historical point of view, especially with what the movie was about the history and what makes history repeat itself and the history of race. Then we had an amazing historian and researcher on the film. And absolutely going into the community, starting out with just standing and walking around, then talking to people who live there, and the people who had to leave, and hear their stories.
Q: You use shadow puppets to retell the legend of Candyman. That creates a striking visual. Even when the camera pans all the way out during the murder of Finley (Rebecca Spence), an art critic, she resembles a puppet.
A: Yeah, she becomes another pawn or piece in this legend.
Q: What drew you to that imagery?
A: Shadow puppetry came out of the desire to not do flashbacks that were scenes from the original film cut into our film or recreated with different actors. (Laughs) We were like, Thats terrible. We realized that shadow puppetry is good not just for the flashbacks, but codifying the storytelling, the legend. Shadow puppets are much cruder, much more over-the-top. Its illustrating this isnt real life and the way we think of real life. This is a story, even though its based on real life. We also got to tell the story of Candyman without showing that violence. So, it could still be evocative and sad, but we could not create more disturbing imagery of Black people being brutalized by race violence.
Q: It also helps thread what becomes central to the narrative: navigating whiteness in the art world. What made you decide to base the story here?
A: I think its a really great way to show this Black man trying to navigate a very white world, someone who is also being asked to exploit his community in order to make art. Hes trying to write a thesis, trying to get inspiration for his work and get out of the slump hes in. Almost all Black artists, no matter what industry theyre in, deal with this.
Q: Candyman also explores the prevalence and preservation of myths and legends. What do you think is the benefit of keeping these kinds of stories alive, as brutal as they can be?
A: Jordan said storytelling is a monster, in a way. I think stories in a community are really useful because they pass on lessons to learn, to remember people. And as it relates to racial violence, a warning. Like, this happened to so-and-so, so dont do that. I also think stories help us grieve and process as a collective even if stories arent perfect or theyre wrong or made up. (Laughs) I think thats a lot of what Candyman is about. To pass along the story is also to change it and retool it for your community, generation, family, immediate surroundings. Thats whats really fun and interesting about how Candyman works and how legends work in general. They change because they have to. But at their core, theyre trying to give you the same message.
Q: But not everyone, like Brianna for instance, wants to even confront it or what happened to her own father, an artist who took his own life.
A: One hundred percent. Brianna is pushing down her trauma, and it starts to come to the fore when she starts having those nightmares. I think its been proven scientifically that if you dont engage with trauma, it will just fester and the outburst will be worse than moving through it. Candyman definitely goes on that thesis that you need to talk about it. You need to express it. Because we need to find ways to heal.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times