REVIEW: Candyman (2021) and the Real Story of Cabrini–Green

We’ve been waiting years for this.

In 2018, Jordan Peele (a comedian who proved he has just as great of an eye for horror with Get Out and Us), announced his studio would produce a sequel to the 1992 film Candyman. Nia DaCosta (known for Little Woods) signed on to direct and cowrite the film. In 2019, the cast and crew descended upon Chicago for filming. In 2020, COVID-19 ravaged the world and delayed its scheduled release.

Finally, in 2021 at summer’s end, the Candyman—now free from dormancy—returned to the big screen for his next chapter. You see, we weren’t the only ones counting the days. DaCosta’s Candyman isn’t a remake of the original; it’s a brave return to Cabrini–Green thirty years after Helen Lyle encountered the housing project’s urban legend manifested.

Candyman (1992) –

But to understand the impact of the Candyman saga, viewers should be aware of the true horror that laid the foundation for the franchise. Cabrini–Green is a very real place, a very real part of Chicago’s history. (It isn’t possible to cover all of its legacy in this review, but I’ve linked some helpful research at the end.)

Situated in a desirable spot on the downtown cusp, the development opened in the 1940s with nothing but good intentions. It was meant to be an accessible, affordable solution to overpriced housing and greedy landlords, an attempt to democratize living in one of the country’s most segregated cities.

But as many Black families traded in unlivable conditions for promising new homes and friendly neighbors at Cabrini–Green, systemic racism and negative media attention eventually eclipsed the development’s progress. Its early years are remembered fondly by folks who lived there—the iconic high rises, dance competitions in the street, unlocked doors.

Federal law mandated that city housing repairs had to be paid for by tenants, and with economic opportunities largely denied to the Black community, many families were unable to pay the costs to maintain their homes. The development is also surrounded by wealthy white neighborhoods—the federal housing authority further denied aid due to claims that the Black residents’ presence was impacting home prices. Instead of offering support, the Chicago Housing Authority’s promises turned to dust and it existed to collect rent and enforce evictions.

Candyman (2021) – IMDB.COM

Cabrini–Green survived for decades; its community continued to thrive despite violent crime, tragedy, and unrelenting stigma that marred both its reputation and physical condition. Haunted by injustice, the development became a scapegoat for fear which aided in director Bernard Rose’s decision to make it the setting for the original Candyman—he called it a place of “palpable fear,” an anxiety from outsiders entrenched in racial and social bias.

By the 2000s, Cabrini–Green was demolished, leaving behind a handful of dilapidated row houses that—in Candyman (2021)—guard the development’s history and give our bee-surrounded slasher a place to lurk. There’s also a Target. It’s just one of many examples of the area’s gentrification, ironically marked with a giant bullseye.

Gentrification is where the new Candyman begins. Our protagonist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), is a burgeoning artist-to-watch-out-for who lives with his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris), a gallery director. They are introduced during a scene when the couple discusses Chicago’s ongoing gentrification with Brianna’s brother and his boyfriend (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Kyle Kaminsky, respectively). Cabrini–Green is inevitably brought up, leading to a candlelit retelling of the legend of Helen Lyle and the Candyman.

Stifled for an idea for his upcoming exhibition, Anthony finds himself inspired by the story, and ventures to the development’s hollow remains where he encounters a foreboding bee—you know, the angry thing that often warrants a visit from he-who-should-not-be-named-five-times?

Candyman (2021) –

Anthony’s interest in the hook-handed villain, much like Helen’s, spirals into a prophetic obsession. Brianna is tasked with helping her partner maintain his grip on reality, echoing flashbacks to her own childhood that suggest she may be fated for this kind of thing.

Meanwhile, the original film’s themes of racial injustice are examined again, this time under a modern lens by a Black director: the white consumption of Black stories, commodification of Black pain, and how “starving artists” attempt to remove themselves from the narrative of gentrification. The script handles these scenes well—subtle dialogue leaves a stinging burn.

As I mentioned, the film is a sequel, but could more or less stand alone. The plot of the original is recapped throughout, with some of Candyman’s origin story reimagined through new characters. Viewers should absolutely still watch the original Candyman before taking in DaCosta’s version. There are spectacular homages (a Clive Barker novel in a laundromat; he authored the short story the ’92 film was adapted from), reappearances, and continuity from where things in the first film let off.

My only critique is for the climax, where certain aspects felt somewhat convoluted. (I’ll admit that reading several analyses and explanations afterwards helped me make connections I had missed—other viewers may need no assistance.) The ending left me breathless.

DaCosta and Peele delivered a refreshing take on a horror favorite, filling in the dusty blank pages for a story that demanded a new chapter. Is it an ending? We are given a satisfying completion but the very nature of the Candyman—centuries of ancestral and community trauma—is eternal.


Trigger Warnings

SOURCES: All That’s Interesting, Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, The Triibe.

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