Candyman: The Optics of Gentrification

As gentrification continues in Chicago, Candyman (2020) highlights an encroaching modern-day horror that transforms everything it touches.

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Themes Of Gentrification In Candyman Explained

CW/TW: Description of Violent Acts Against Black Bodies 

As gentrification continues in Chicago, Candyman (2020) highlights an encroaching modern-day horror that transforms everything it touches.

“He’s the monster that’s a part of this neighborhood.”

-Candyman (2020)

If one has no empathy and time for excavating the history of the United States and you’d like to scapegoat the byproduct of racism named Candyman then…sure, but no the real monster here is gentrification. Okay, sweetlings, let’s have a dialogue about the new Candyman trailer, shall we? 

The latest trailer for Director Nia DaCosta’s Candyman (2020) highlights the push-pull of generations of erasure and displacement in the city of Chicago. By examining the socio-economics of race and class and a radically altered Cabrini Green, the film will explore “the ghosts that have been left behind because of gentrification.” It cannot be understated that ghosts can be living people as well, whose lives become mired in the annals of folklore.

The now-demolished Cabrini Green towers— the last of which was destroyed in 2011—stand as the looming sentinels of decades of broken promises for its predominately Black residents. In the 1940s, thousands of Black migrants from various southern states were fleeing racially targeted violence and seeking better racial and economic policies in the city of Chicago. They did indeed have a community in the housing projects, but the side-effects of redlining, persistent racism, and neglect from the city’s various governmental agencies chipped away at the safety, cleanliness, and overall image of Cabrini Green. 

Candyman (1992)

Candyman (1992)

The Candyman story of 1992 shows a housing project in decline with the threat of ‘urban renewal’ constantly in the rearview mirror; today that renewal exists as hundred-thousand-dollar condominiums and a Target shopping center where the infamous high-rises once stood. In the span of a few years, 15,000 people living in 23 highrise buildings located on a 70-acre plot, were evicted and quickly bulldozed from history.

However, all of Cabrini Green has not been scrubbed from existence. The flat Cabrini row-houses still remain, alongside other architectural structures shown in the film trailer, such as churches and small businesses. Moreover, the former residents are still alive today telling their stories and fighting for the people and culture now far-flung to different parts of the city. The Cabrini Green of the newest film shows an area infiltrated by wealthy millennials and a bourgeois art scene that grossly revels in the mythology of Candyman and the commodification of Black historical trauma. 

The name of Candyman is a hashtag trending topic now, rife for fetishization, as shown by a couple amorously canoodling while in the Candyman art exhibit. The couple is having a sexual encounter and invoking the name of a Black deceased person for thrills. Yikes to the nth power, well at least they won’t be in the sequel. Conversely, the original residents of Cabrini know there is a sacredness to his name that should be whispered or not invoked whatsoever. There are many ways to acknowledge history, and an intentional generational silence surrounding a name or a place can be an unintended side-effect of painful memories for the older generations, that obscures the meaning in the first place for the generations that follow.

The Black Woman who shakes her head shushes the speaker, and symbolically wipes the name from the air surrounding them is eerily reminiscent of the Black woman held hostage inside her own body in Get Out (2017). The haunting imagery of those shiny brown eyes, forced smile, and repetitive no, no, no, no no with tear tracks running down the face is one seared into collective memory; for eagle-eyed viewers, the woman highlighted in the Candyman trailer is Anne-Marie McCoy (Vanessa Williams) whose baby was almost burned to death in a sacrificial pyre from the original 1992 film. Now, her character from the trailer is a meme and a gif for the modern age—there’s some kind of irony there, I’m just not sure which.  

Racial/Ethnic Casting Choices

Candyman (1992)

I believe there was a conscious choice in the casting of the film as well to illustrate an ever-changing racial and ethnic makeup of the city of Chicago; for example, the trailer opens with a mixed-race cast of girls (Asian, LatinX, and White) in a high school bathroom having fun with the name game of Candyman. Now, what was slightly unusual to me was the women of color being cool with tempting fate/supernatural. I will preface this by saying that people of color are not monolithic and traditional values surrounding spirits and the afterlife are all culturally different, but there is usually an ingrained religious and-or generational respect for the dead or anything considered demonic.

The narratives of superstition and not tampering with dark-sided phenomena for people of color is ubiquitous for a reason, so I hope the film will have a moment to comment on this before the young ladies get their comeuppance, but I digress. A young Black girl enters the bathroom breaking the tension, looks at the lot of them and with a sigh/roll of her eyes enters the sanctuary of a bathroom stall. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the girls entertaining the specter of Candyman, leaving the Black girl as a solitary bystander to violence. The bookends of the trailer show Black children as lone eyewitnesses to Candyman’s bloodshed; the echoes of witnessing real-life traumatic events in the physical and digital media space for Black people were on display prominently here. Needless to say, I know that many images in this trailer were triggering and nightmarish for many Black people I’m sure, it certainly was for me.

Graphic Descriptions Ahead – Warning Advised

Candyman (2021)

One character hugs another from behind (actors Teyonah Paris and Yahya Abdul Mateen respectively) during a moment in the film’s trailer, with a beautiful bookcase in the background, and sitting upon one of the shelves is a searing artistic rendering of a caricature in ‘blackface’. It can be assumed either way that the lead character painted the image or purchased the image, but the presence of artwork that could be considered ghastly and a reminder of America’s past is present constantly in a Black person’s everyday life, whether we want it to be or not.

The artist in question, like many Black people, incorporates their own journey plus the stories of their ancestors into their artistic projects. From the mediums of photography, filmmaking, or in the case of this new film painting, the stories of Black American past and present are always intimately etched into our work. There’s a shot in the trailer where a White female art critic or journalist and the painter are standing side by side looking at one of his most recent art pieces, and I’m not talking about the mirror installations he installed that let you reflect and summon ‘the spirit’, but the painting that depicts the brutally mutilated face of Candyman that looks frighteningly similar to Emmett Till’s.

The familiarity of the image for me and the Black audience that recognizes its iconography was probably a jarring one that made many of us violently ill. If not ill, you were left squirming uncomfortably because the imagery evokes the brutalized bodies of Black people post-lynching. What genuinely scares me (and titillates me) the most about this new Candyman is just how far Director Nia DaCosta will go with the imagery and symbolism of Black fear and terror in America. We’ve experienced so much as a people, but to hone that lens and focus it into a cinematic experience is something that White UK Director Bernard Rose just wasn’t adept and nuanced enough to handle in 1992. 

Speaking of a nuanced eye for narrative detail, the shots of the Black painter becoming/reflecting the mirror image of Candyman was frightening on a deeper psychological level for the following reasons. Black people, especially Black men are constantly labeled or targeted with descriptors in media and real-life as monstrous, menacing, brutish, the n-word, or a cavalcade of other dehumanizing racist epithets.

There is a subconscious fear that one day despite your accomplishments, upward mobility, or other bootstrap tactics that your inherent humanity will be deconstructed and you’ll only be the subject of someone else’s cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, it’s purposeful and pointed commentary that the spectators of the Candyman art exhibition are all of a certain class structure, not just racial—which by proxy can make them emotionally distant and ‘unbiased critics’ to the messaging of the artwork and the name upon which it stands. 

Easter Egg Hunt

Here’s a quick lightning round of easter eggs before I conclude. The setting of many of Candyman’s iconic 1992 imagery has shifted to a location outside of the Cabrini Green Housing Project towers. Now, one of the remaining churches that’s nestled on the same street is where a plethora of his murals and effigies are displayed. There’s a flash of the frightful image of the UK rendering of Candyman from Clive Barker’s novella The Forbidden on one of the walls of the church. Instead of a spray-painted variant of Candyman’s iconic gaping mouth from behind the bathroom mirror, it’s been painted in much darker colors as part of the archway on one of the doors of the church.

The ’sweets to sweet’ phrase that was written with strewn feces in the Cabrini Green bathroom is now looming large over the pews of the church written in blood or spray paint. The church is a new place for Candyman’s devotees or victims to congregate and the evidence of that is a seemingly burned or mummified person in one of the pews—shown while a swarm of bees enters through a broken stained glass window. Candyman’s exposed ribcage makes a special appearance in a blink and you miss it moment,  with less gore but what eerily looks like a shadow puppet or an art piece made from black construction paper, with a light shining through it from behind. There’s so much amazing new and referential imagery in this trailer that I’ve chronicled the various screenshots with timestamps here for your enjoyment. 

Never Forget Cabrini-Green

The optics of gentrification in Candyman are a theme that we’ve seen explored previously in other Jordan Peele associated projects such as Get Out, with the protagonist having an eye for photography that a rich buyer sorely desires by any means necessary. His latest film entitled Us, shows a literal and metaphorical battle between the haves and have not’s, that starts with a ballerina at its center.

Horror films, in particular, are a dynamic vehicle to examine the moral and social conversations of various eras. Highlighting various -isms via a monster, haunted set piece, or exploration of the unknown is what gives many films within the genre staying power. Note, it’s also important to be media literate and inquisitive about history because films that portray Cabrini Green or other places that experienced violence or poverty, with a malevolent skew or boogeyman framing device, are othering and negating the lived experiences of individual people. Leila Taylor, author of ‘Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul’, speaks of the downplayed legacy of racialized economic disinvestment.

“I think there is a haunting of Black lives that remains in gentrified spaces and I think one of the goals of gentrification—whether people admit it or not—is to replace that history with their own.”

Leila Taylor (Darkly: Black History and America’s Gothic Soul, 2019)

As gentrification continues in places like Chicago and across the country, this film represents an encroaching modern-day horror that transforms everything it touches. It’s sobering that words that once inspired fear for generations are now cathartic (and we’re buzzing with excitement for that voice to return in 2020). 

“You were not content with the stories, so I was obliged to come.”

– Candyman (1992)

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