Over a Zoom from London, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II admits he hesitated before saying yes to the first Candyman film in over 20 years. “I think the story of Candyman is so iconic. Everyone knows it in my household,” the Oakland-raised actor explains to EBONY. “In order to step into [this role], I had to make sure we had a good reason to be messing with it.”
Abdul-Mateen II’s reverence and respect for the film is certainly warranted. When the very first Candyman premiered in 1992, it became an instant classic. Because so few horror films had any Black people at all in them during that era, Candyman’s success was even more noteworthy. Being an actual killer is not exactly why Candyman hit so hard. Instead, the serious backstory acknowledging the racial trauma Black people have endured in this country also played a major role. As the legend goes, Candyman, played by Tony Todd, was once a well-educated man who found success as a portrait artist for wealthy white people in post-Civil War America. When he had an affair with one of his subjects producing a child, her father sent a lynch mob after him that sawed off his hand, placing a hook in the stump before smearing honey on him and leaving him for bees to sting him to death.
Fast forward a century or more later and his ghost hangs over Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project, emerging whenever his name is said five times in a row in a mirror with death typically following. Candyman is both villain and victim whose own traumatic history is a general reflection of the ugliness Black people have actually endured in this country. Given Jordan Peele’s phenomenal success with his 2017 film Get Out also mining racial trauma in horror (and subsequently unlocking a floodgate of opportunity for other Black filmmakers in horror), it’s not surprising he decided to update this classic.
Instead of directing Candyman himself, Peele tapped Nia DaCosta, whose 2018 debut film Little Woods starring Tessa Thompson garnered rave reviews. At just age 31, DaCosta is on a fast track that’s been unprecedented for Black women directors and is currently helming her third film, the Captain Marvel sequel Marvels. But Peele didn’t just install DaCosta as the director. She also co-wrote the script with him and Win Rosenfeld, who leads his Monkeypaw Productions.
Consequently, their Candyman takes place in a contemporary setting. Artist Anthony McCoy (Abdul Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parrish), an art gallery director, are among the newest residents of gentrified Cabrini-Green. William Burke (Colman Domingo), who grew up in the notorious project, introduces Anthony to the legend of Candyman. Fascinated by the tale, Anthony centers the legend in his latest exhibition, but the story takes a dark turn as folks who dare repeat Candyman’s name multiple times in a mirror are brutally murdered. Naturally, the film probes many Issues, especially those related to gentrification and systemic racism.
Before Abdul-Mateen II signed on, he says he had “to really investigate why Candyman and why now?” Searching for answers, Abdul-Mateen II spoke with both Peele and DaCosta. “We talked about the opportunity to tell the story about the truth behind Candyman that people often don't talk about, which is the fact that Candyman was born out of an act of white violence; he was created into a monster against his will," explains the actor.
“And that's the part of the narrative about Candyman that a lot of people often forget,” Abdul-Mateen II emphasizes. “We remember the villain; we remember the blood and the hooks and the murders. But we don't talk about the fact that the man was lynched. We don't talk about the history of how he became [who he was]. And when I looked at those parallels in present-day history, I saw the opportunity to come in and to retell our version in a way that could allow us to give a bit more dignity to tragic figures like Candyman.”
For this reason, Abdul-Mateen II felt “it was important to go back and make sure that we filmed in Chicago because such a large part of it has been hit by gentrification, has been hit by this displacement. So, the last thing we wanted to do was to tell their story without actually being there. It was important to go back to Cabrini-Green to make them feel a part of the process and not feel just completely ignored or excluded as it pertains to our film.”
During filming Abdul-Mateen II experienced a particularly jarring moment. “There is a scene where Anthony walks through the older Cabrini-Green, the rowhouses and, and it's just a ghost town,” he shares. “One can only imagine that there were mothers and grandmothers and cousins and fathers and babies that had birthday parties and family gatherings, graduation celebrations. There was so much life whereas, at the present time, it's a ghost town. And it was pretty haunting thinking about ‘where did all those families go, where did all the life in those stories go?’”
Candyman has DaCosta’s strong imprint for Abdul-Mateen II. “There's the art culture, the wine culture,” he says. “She is extremely inquisitive, she's strong-willed, she’s sensitive, she’s stern. She has a clear sense of self and ambition, and I think that a lot of the characters in the story are like her in that way as well.”
Despite both Brianna and Anthony’s accomplishments, racism, like with Candyman, does not leave them unscathed. “For all intents and purposes, they are seen as upwardly mobile, but, yet, they are experiencing racism, experiencing discrimination, even within their own fields. As excellent as they are, they are navigating the world where to improve yourself socially does not eliminate the barriers that persist because of racism.”
Even though Covid bumped Candyman’s release from 2020 to now, Abdul-Mateen II is confident the film will still have an impact, especially around racial injustice. “A lot of topics of discussion are going to come out of this film,” he promises.