The City We Refuse to See

October 2021 Ι New York Review of Architecture, #23 

Review: Candyman (2021 version), directed by Nia DaCosta. Spoilers ahead.

In Candyman, the 1992 film and its 2021 remake, a killer slips past walls and phases in and out of mirrors. This gore-soaked terror inhabits the shadow-realms of crumbling public housing blocks. He skulks the empty halls of blasphemed, boarded-up churches, performing dark rituals that are indelibly tied to the American way of life. Set in Chicago, the two features advance a distinct type of architecture-bound horror, where walls and demarcations of space are violated as spectacularly as the slashed bodies of Candyman’s victims.

Modernism, in both films, announces itself through lengthy pans of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City towers and Walter Netsch’s University of Illinois at Chicago campus, but also in suffocating shots of Cabrini-Green, the public housing complex that once stood in the city’s North Side. For an architecture-inclined audience, the series offers an alluring and poisonous treat, like Candyman’s sweets laced with razors. But if the projects posed as malevolent forces in the original, in the remake, directed by Nia DaCosta and produced by Jordan Peele, their erasure unleashes a new spirit of vengeance. Released a decade after the last demolition crews left Cabrini-Green, 2021’s Candyman observes what happens when loops of generational trauma are dislodged by the wrecking ball and set loose into the wider city.

Before he became the titular hook-handed phantom, Candyman had been a talented Black portraiture artist, arriving in Chicago with hundreds of thousands of others during the Great Migration. According to the legend, he falls in love with a beautiful white woman, prompting her family to get involved; after the woman becomes pregnant, her kin seeks recrimination. It is, in short, a lynching story, one that DaCosta and Peele serialize through their restaging. With this move, they establish a cinematic, but also social, continuum, where Black men are cast in the part of the vindictive killer, a stereotype that permeates Hollywood and the wider culture. As such, the specter of Candyman serves two vital purposes: he embodies not only the demonization and essentializing of Black people, but also the horrors racial capitalism keeps offstage.

The remake is set in a post-public housing incarnation of Cabrini-Green. White people, says the film’s protagonist, Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), “tore [the projects] down and gentrified the shit out of it.” The area is now a comfortable enclave of creative-class strivers like Anthony, a successful Black artist, and his curator girlfriend, Brianna (Teyonah Parris). They share an apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and West Elm furnishings and trade opinions on wine pairings and contemporary art. Chicago is less gray here than in director Bernard Rose’s original; the city is active and vibrant, as if Cabrini-Green itself were a demon that needed to be cast out. Beset by a creative block, Anthony is egged on by a scummy white gallerist (Brian King) to “dig into that history of yours, dude!” and be “the great Black hope of the Chicago art scene!” Anthony comes across the Candyman tale and finds his muse in Helen Lyle, a white grad student whose “fieldwork” at Cabrini-Green sets the first film’s plot in motion. The work Anthony produces for the gallery is a summoning portal for America’s repressed tradition of violence against Black people, complete with wall text and a materials list. But he soon becomes mired in an obsession that consumes his art, his body, and his environment.

For the filmmakers, this chain of damnation and reprisal is unending. One manifestation of this is the commodification of cultures by people who should know better. In the original, Helen catalogues lurid accounts of Black suffering as an aspiring academic. She’s in it for clout, a master’s thesis, and to assuage her own authentic white guilt. But in DaCosta’s version, Anthony becomes the clout-chaser. He shops his work to an art critic on opening night, a few hours before his peers meet their untimely end at the gallery; in the ensuing news coverage about the murders, Anthony is mostly jazzed to hear his name read aloud on TV. Cabrini-Green has been sold and flipped, and he intends to do the same with his art, a far more liquid asset than Helen’s academic bonafides.

Both films are preoccupied with depicting architectural wholes sealed off from the “real” city outside. They can be seen as palimpsests of Black Chicago, the remnants of forgotten lives and unspeakable hardships whose resonance persists in the present. In the first movie, a chasm separates Cabrini-Green from all that is good, while the complex’s caged exterior hallways, endless cinder-block construction, and run-on graffiti heighten the sense of dread and isolation. Misery seeps into apartments through the spaces between walls and hidden passageways that lead to Candyman’s dark altar. In this twisted world, even a climactic bonfire meant to exorcise the elusive wraith is filmed as a hideaway refuge, more like a treehouse lookout than a smoldering pile.

After the city came for Cabrini-Green, its 15,000 or so residents were sent packing, and DaCosta picks up this thread. Absent Cabrini-Green as a locus of Black identity and community, the little worlds that populate her Candyman are dispersed and atomized. Even Cabrini-Green’s remainders, the Cabrini-Green Row Houses, are prevented from being integrated into city life by the glass condo towers that encircle them. Meanwhile, Anthony’s art installation (titled Say My Name) mines the site’s suppressed history. He stages the work—paintings depicting the Candyman legend lit with neon—behind a gallery wall, accessible via a bathroom medicine cabinet. As Anthony descends deeper into madness, his studio reflects his unspooling mind. Shot from high overhead, he is surrounded by his tortured paintings, canvases filled with dark blotches of paint that render skulls, screams, and shorn flesh in collage. A beam of light from a blinded window is extinguished by the shadowy recesses of the room. And here, Anthony is alone.

This feeling of loneliness persists through his quest to understand the nightmare that was Cabrini-Green. That isolation and vulnerability is missing, however, from Candyman of 1992, which unfolds through big Cabrini-Green set pieces. Frightening as those scenes are, the film culminates in a poignant moment of collective action, with residents banding together to extirpate Candyman from their home. In the latter-day film, Candyman’s earthly arbiter William Burke (Coleman Domingo) spells out his charge’s purpose: neoliberalism having swept collective action off the table, Candyman must step in and exact retribution on behalf of the beleaguered Black community.

“They tore down our homes so they could move back in,” William says. “We need Candyman, cause this time he’ll be killin’ their fathers, their babies, their sisters.” From this point of view, Candyman is a vigilante historic preservationist.

In DaCosta’s retelling, whose Afropessimistic themes also inform Peele’s work, Candyman himself has been dispossessed. Without his lair at Cabrini-Green, he relies on William to fully enact his terror campaign. He seems to have lost the solidity that previous iterations of Candyman possessed. We often see the effects of his vengeance—bodies flung and twisted as if by an invisible force—but only rarely catch glimpses of the avenger himself. By the end of the remake, Candyman’s face is obscured by a halo of bees, and the bits of him that are reflected in car windows reveal a writhing composite of past selves. With the uprooting of Cabrini-Green and yet another loop of trauma added to the ledger, he’s become more spectral, less corporeal and spatially bound—an abstract cypher. “Candyman ain’t a ‘he’” says William. “He’s the whole hive.”

With its ripped-from-the-Feed subject matter, NUMTOT talking points, and ultimate confrontation with the authority tasked with upholding America’s social order, DaCosta’s film is never coy. It’s also well-suited to its (long-overdue) moment. Like a mirror, it reflects the anxieties of living in a culture more and more aware of its racism and degeneracy yet seemingly unable to do anything about it. But this keen awareness also robs the film of its momentum. Its predecessor, by contrast, hits like a bolt from the blue, a prophetic nightmare, a reckoning.

Last year’s urban uprisings gave way to a multi-racial, liberal popular front ready to acknowledge the reality of generational violence and racial trauma. What had been confined to the realm of allegory was finally out in the open. (The Candyman mythos is partly grounded in well-documented news stories, including the 1987 murder of Ruthie McCoy, a resident of the Chicago’s Abbott Homes public housing project, by thieves who gained access to her apartment through a bathroom mirror.) But the reckoning was largely confined to social media feeds and consumer culture, with precious few material reforms to show for itself. Whether intentional or not, the creation of a violent Black pathology is a state project for which even these enlightened liberals bear some responsibility. Creating a forum for admitting this (a goal Peele’s work also shared) is admirable; it’s also a rather low bar to clear.

The Candyman series is also an indictment on the way we make, and unmake, cities today. It attests to an inability to displace myth, culture, fear, and violence with the same efficiency that real-estate developers and bureaucrats displace people. DaCosta’s film isn’t hopeful about Candyman’s mission of vengeance ever being understood as a corrective to injustice. But his lethal hook-hand is perfectly shaped to drag down a developer’s bottom line.