Nia DaCosta on ‘Candyman’ and the Power of Terrifying Legends

This article contains spoilers for the new film “Candyman.”

When Nia DaCosta was a child in 1992 New York, you couldn’t tell her that the villain in the original horror film “Candyman” didn’t 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 wasn’t coming from a movie.”

It might sound like the naïve 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.

It’s 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,” the director said.

The new film re-examines 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 you’ll meet a bloody fate that won’t be soon forgotten.

“It’s all about, My name is to be remembered, My story is to be remembered — by this community in particular,” DaCosta added. “Because the community doesn’t 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.

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?

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 didn’t really think about it much until people on Twitter were like, “Excuse me, it’s Nia DaCosta’s ‘Candyman.’” I was like, “Oh, that’s really sweet.” I’m 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 who’s more famous.”

Speaking of navigating pressure, I would imagine taking on “Candyman” was daunting because fans are so protective of it. Did you have any hesitation?

I was really excited because Jordan Peele was co-writer and a producer — no-brainer. So, I felt really safe in the process because I’m a huge fan of his. But then, of course, reality sets in. It’s not even, like, “Oh, the fans really want. …” It’s 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 I’m 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 we’re portraying. I have to have faith that would guide me to do the best I could.

What kind of research did you do on Cabrini-Green?

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.

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.

Yeah, she becomes another pawn or piece in this legend.

What drew you to that imagery?

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, “That’s 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. It’s illustrating this isn’t real life and the way we think of real life. This is a story, even though it’s 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.

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?

I think it’s 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. He’s trying to write a thesis, trying to get inspiration for his work and get out of the slump he’s in. Almost all Black artists, no matter what industry they’re in, deal with this.

“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?

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 don’t do that. I also think stories help us grieve and process as a collective — even if stories aren’t perfect or they’re wrong or made up. [Laughs] I think that’s 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. That’s what’s really fun and interesting about how “Candyman” works and how legends work in general. They change because they have to. But at their core, they’re trying to give you the same message.

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.

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 it’s been proven scientifically that if you don’t 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.

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