How “Candyman” Fails Black Women and Femmes

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Candyman is based on many influences, the first being Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” featured in the fifth volume of his Books of Blood horror story collection. Set in Liverpool, England, Candyman is a superintendent for low-income housing. The protagonist, Helen Lyle, encounters him while conducting research on urban folklore. The second influence is the urban legend of the hook hand, and the third influence is another urban legend in which one says “Bloody Mary” five times into a mirror. But how can we forget the most infamous of influences, the real life death of Ruthie Mae McCoy, a mentally ill Black woman living alone in South Side Chicago in the ABLA Housing Project

Aged 52, McCoy called the cops to report an attempted home invasion that resulted in a damaged medicine cabinet. The police were dispatched under the less urgent “disturbance with a neighbor” report, as opposed to robbery, which might explain why no officers had arrived by 9:05 p.m. By then, two more calls had been placed in reference to McCoy’s apartment—this time reporting the sound of gunshots. Four police officers arrived around 9:10 p.m. They called McCoy; there was no answer. They borrowed a key from the project office, but it did not work. Neighbors said that McCoy always answered her door. Unable to access the apartment, the police left. Over the next two days, officials debated when and how to enter the apartment. McCoy was found when the lock was finally drilled off of her door. Ruthie Mae McCoy was a victim of institutional violence and police brutality—via neglect.

Ruthie Mae McCoy was a victim of institutional violence and police brutality—via neglect.

We have contemporary examples of Black women falling victim to police violence, many of whom run the full gamut of mental health. Deborah Danner was 66 when she was shot by the NYPD in 2018. Shukri Ali Said was 36 when she died of injuries from police contact in 2018 in Seattle. Charleena Lyles was 30 years old when she was shot in Seattle by police in 2017. Aura Rosser was 40 years old when she was shot by police in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 2014. Pamela Turner was 44 when she was shot in Texas by police in 2019. Muhlaysia Booker was murdered at age 23 in 2019. Devin-Norelle reported in them. Magazine in 2020 the deaths of six Black trans women in nine days. We, hopefully, know and remember the names Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor.

In both the Candyman of 1992 and the Candyman of 2021, the narrative presence of Black women seems more a functional reality than a portrayal with deep investment, in spite of Ruthie Mae McCoy’s very real death, for instance, a fact upon which both films’ lineage depends. But what of the one dimensional rendering of Black women and femmes in these very same films? In the Candyman of 2021, Black women experience the violence of losing Black men, but intimate human bonds between these women are never given proper representation.

The forgettable relationship that America has with Black women is in Candyman itself, but there is a particular scene that truly made me shift uncomfortably in my seat as a viewer, one that made an acute imprint, long as a finger, on my heart. Anthony McCoy’s (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) eyes gleam like an oiled razor edge as he realizes that the mysterious serial murders that have taken place in the upscale Chicago art gallery during an exhibition in which his art is included will bring exposure to that floundering artwork. An uncanny smile pops onto McCoy’s face as he utters, “Say his name.” I sat there, gob-smacked by the blatant erasure of Black women and femme experiences at the intersection of state and intimate partner violence. Jordan Peele and Nia Da Costa abducted a specific phrase meant to highlight and address the violences experienced by Black women and femmes, SAY HER NAME, and repurposed it, erasing a real political call that we continue to yell in the protracted wake of zero charges for the state-sanctioned murder of Breonna Taylor.

I sat there gob-smacked by the blatant erasure of Black women and femme experiences at the intersection of state and intimate partner violence.

The 1992 Candyman reintroduces the white woman character, Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen), from Barker’s short story and refashions her as a PhD student in Chicago, working with her African American fellow PhD student and friend Bernadette Walsh (Kasi Lemmons), on research into urban legends. When Lyle hears from an African American custodial worker, Kitty Culver (Sarina C. Grant), about the urban legend of Candyman circulating in the Cabrini-Greene projects, she convinces Walsh—who consistently tries to persuade her not to visit “the ghetto”—to conduct research in the housing project. The project is rendered as a hot bed of delinquency and crime, rife with predatory Black men and besieged by, predatory, if not equally, Black women. Lyle meets and interviews Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) as she cares for her infant, Anthony (Lanesha Martin). As Lyle investigates the suspicious murder based on the Ruthie Mae McCoy story, she encounters the Candyman, brought to life by Tony Todd. 

Candyman’s origin story goes like this: Robitaille, an African American portraitist from the late 19th century, fell in love with a rich white businessman’s daughter whom he was commissioned to paint. Upon the business man learning that Robitaille had impregnated his daughter, he and a white mob chopped Robitaille’s dominant hand from his body, allowing bees to sting him to death on the land where the Cabrini-Greene projects will be built. In an ill-defined romantic and horror-driven connection, Robitaille aka Candyman dispatches everyone in Lyle’s world. Lyle is blamed for the murders and the disappearance of Anthony McCoy, who by the end of the film, she saves for his Black mother. She drags him out of a bonfire in which Candyman has entrapped the child.

In 2021, the film attempts to correct some of the more controversial aspects of the original movie. Anthony McCoy is now grown, working as a career visual artist while living with his curator partner Brianna Cartwright in new condos built over a portion of the former Cabrini-Greene projects. The film begins with McCoy and Cartwright enjoying their upwardly mobile lifestyle. In this continuance of the story, we do not see the project housing outside of the memories of William Burke (Colman Domingo), we do not see Black women as custodial workers who only appear to move the plot along and then disappear, undifferentiated, back into the ghetto. As McCoy learns of Candyman from Burke, he ventures into the dilapidated and abandoned projects hoping to take photographs that will inspire work for an upcoming group show at Cartwright’s gallery. The subsequent work is received poorly by a critic, the same critic that McCoy later confronts during a private meeting, the same meeting where he says “Say his name.”

Brianna Cartwright is written to be the opposite of McCoy’s mother. Their dichotomy portrays a scale of Black womanhood along respectability signaling. She is educated, well-spoken, upper middle class, white collar, straight, not a mother. She suffers from the specter of her father’s suicide. Aside from Brianna’s relationship with Black men, she does not have the backstory that McCoy is afforded. Her existence via Freudian heterosexism clips her ability to have a more pronounced stake in the film. 

Aside from Brianna’s relationship with Black men, she does not have the backstory that McCoy is afforded.

Anne-Marie McCoy, Anthony McCoy’s mother who appears in Candyman (1992), is reprised in a solitary scene between mother and son where an unspoken conflict manages to take center stage. From the beginning of the movie, McCoy has a strained relationship with his mother, represented only through missed phone calls. Her crime? Not having told him that he’s the baby rescued from Candyman. The other Black women necessary to the Candyman urban legend (Kasi Lemmons as Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh; Barbara Alston as Henrietta; Sarina C. Grant as Kitty Culver) only appear on the recording that McCoy finds in library archives belonging to Helen Lyle. 

Even the presence of Brianna’s brother, Troy Cartwright, falls flat. Cartwright and his partner Grady Smith (Kyle Kaminsky) provide comic levity, but do not seem attached to any community of their own. Troy’s most engaging scene is when he accompanies Brianna to gather her things after McCoy has gone off the rails with his impending possession. It’s a moment of sibling solidarity, and momentarily reveals a rich dynamic between them. It is this mirroring construct—the attempt to respond by only representing the opposite—that revives restricted depictions of Black women (and Black people in general): either trapped in the ghetto or successful capitalists; either failed mothers or mothers not at all; either in opposition to white heteropatriarchal standards, or fitting into those standards and being targets for brutality anyway.

The movie ends with Brianna Cartwright cowering in the abandoned projects, holding Anthony McCoy—whose possession by Candyman is almost complete. The cops arrive, storming their location, shooting immediately. The next scene shows McCoy’s body across the room and Brianna unscathed, a confusing narrative choice that further misrepresents Black women’s encounters with state institutions.

While we don’t know the specific aspects of how this new script was produced, or what sorts of edits were made, or what pressures Nia DaCosta, the film’s director, may have been under, we do know that the tendency to render the Black woman invisible is common for Jordan Peele. In Get Out, there is not one nuanced representation of a Black woman. Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) mother is never physically embodied, save for his dreams where she is represented as a deer; she is also a drug addict, one of the only intimate details we learn about her. Washington’s mother never appears in the film to represent herself; she is an ill-defined specter that is mostly defined by her drug abuse. Georgina (Betty Gabriel) is locked in her psychologically possessed state, no agency, no motivation outside of fear; Chris Washington hits her with his car in an effort to escape. Detective LaToya (Erika Alexander) refuses to believe Chris and his friend Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howey), leaving them to their fates. In Us, Red/Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) shoulders the near entirety of the destruction of the world she occupies, while being characterized by the same respectability that defines Brianna Cartwright. Peele seems incapable of writing a genuine, humanized Black woman, and this flaw remains a cornerstone of his work. If the writers, producers, and director were looking to build an accurate vision of violence against Black men, it’s impossible to do so without a nuanced and complicated portrayal of state violence against Black women, femmes, and queer people. They deserve a more substantial tie-in than just romantic relationships. 

Peele seems incapable of writing a genuine, humanized Black woman, and this flaw remains a cornerstone of his work.

The logics of race and binary gender are not challenged or broken down, they are reinforced. The extremes of respectable or not, of man or woman, of white or Black, accomplished or not (by late capitalist standards) are held firmly in place. Black representation is restricted, most of all for the Black women/femme characters represented in the movie. By now the works of Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Barbara Smith, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Saidiya Hartman, Hortense Spillers, Katherine McKittrick, Kara Keeling, Riley C. Snorton, Sylvia Wynter, and so many others have given us viable blueprints and words so that collectively, our society can understand and express Black women’s realities while also challenging their present and gathering the tools to build a new future.

In the end, I am left with what ifs: What if Anne-Marie McCoy was the protagonist? What if Brianna became Candyman? What if the niece of Bernadette Walsh had become an artist? What if the gay couple played by Nathan Stewart Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky were not an ancillary diversity couple, entirely unnecessary to the plot? What if the Black women from the original Candyman were purposefully reprised and we began with Black women? Surely, beginning with us can also do the political and social work that the 2021 Candyman aspired to do. There is an audience out there—myself among them—of Black women collectively calling for help; Black women of all experiences just walking home, defending themselves from institutional and intimate violence; Black women of all experiences wanting to be themselves, wanting to be safe, wanting to be seen. Some would argue that the lack of attention to state and intimate violence and death in the lives of Black women and femmes is because of their low percentage compared to the deaths of Black men due to police brutality. But those same deaths are often preceded by serial violences and invisibilities that are perpetrated or exacerbated by state and intimate violence. This erodes stability for the people Black women and femmes often care for, and injects further vulnerability into communities that Black women and femmes hold up. In the case of 2021’s Candyman, the material risk of our lives—our narrow representation, our invisibility—becomes reinforced in our imaginations, along with everyone else’s. The shape of the film is made by the negative space manifested in dropped storylines that could have centered Black women, rather than erasing our struggles with state and intimate violence.

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