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The only thing scarier than a fictional 'Candyman' is the reality of racism

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 8/26/2021 Rasha Ali, USA TODAY
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The only thing more terrifying than a half-dead boogeyman, covered in bees with a hook for a hand, brutally murdering people who say his name five times is the reason he came to be that way: racism

Director Nia DaCosta's contemporary take on "Candyman" (in theaters Friday), while an entertaining horror movie, also serves as a reminder that America's original sin continues to haunt us over 150 years later. 

In the film, the ghost of Candyman "was created from an act of white violence upon a Black man," says star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II who plays Anthony McCoy, a visual artist who becomes enthralled with Candyman's story. "And that began a cycle of violence."

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That cycle of violence commenced with 1992's "Candyman," whose title character was revealed to be Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), an artist and son of an enslaved person hired to paint a portrait of a wealthy white woman, Caroline Sullivan, in the late 1800s. The two fell in love, Caroline got pregnant and Robitaille was lynched by a mob led by Caroline's father. Long after his death, Robitaille's ghost became an urban legend in 20th Century Chicago, haunting residents of the city's Cabrini-Green projects, which DaCosta uses as a pivotal setting in her incarnation of "Candyman." 

Nathan Stewart-Jarrett sitting on a table: Troy Cartwright (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Brianna's brother, tells the original "Candyman" urban legend story to his sister and Anthony. © NBC Universal Troy Cartwright (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Brianna's brother, tells the original "Candyman" urban legend story to his sister and Anthony.

The new film opens with a flashback to police swarming the projects and beating Sherman, a local Black man, to death after wrongfully accusing him of handing out candy with razor blades in them. William Burke (Colman Domingo), a longtime resident of the Cabrini-Green projects who witnessed the wrongful murder as a child, soon shares Robitaille and Sherman's stories with curious artist Anthony McCoy (Abdul-Mateen), telling him "they love what we make, but not us," a concept Black creatives know all too well. 

a man standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in "Candyman," directed by Nia DaCosta. © Universal Pictures and MGM Pictures Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in "Candyman," directed by Nia DaCosta.

A previously unmotivated McCoy's interest is piqued by the urban legend and he begins painting nightmarish visions inspired by "Candyman" that are ultimately shown at an art gallery hoping to win the approval of a white critic.

"That's sort of the history of Black people in America," DaCosta explains. "It's all about what we produce, whether it's continental cotton, or it's art, or it's music or whatever. But then when it comes to the actual human (behind the work), the human story, the human suffering, or even just the human joy, it gets ignored."

"Candyman" holds a mirror to 2021's America and forces viewers to reckon with how institutional racism and modern-day lynchings, more commonly known as police brutality, make regular Black folks out to be villains.

" 'Candyman' is not just one person. 'Candyman' is, if I can put it in more modern terms, George Floyd. 'Candyman' is Breonna Taylor. 'Candyman' is the monster that white people have made up, which is Black people," Domingo says. 'Candyman' is all of these men and women who've died at the hands of systemic racism."

Colman Domingo standing in front of a stove: William Burke (Colman Domingo) is a longtime resident of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects and helps Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) understand who "Candyman" is. © NBC Universal William Burke (Colman Domingo) is a longtime resident of Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing projects and helps Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) understand who "Candyman" is.

Floyd, Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Stinney, Sandra Bland – the list of Black men and women killed in the name of racism is tragically long. Their names turn into hashtags pleading with people to stop killing Black folks simply for living. Their lives are put on display for the entire world in attempts to humanize them and prove they were good, educated, hardworking people who didn't deserve to die like this.

And still, think pieces and news commentators try to justify Black people's murders by pulling up dusty records of a marijuana citation or an anecdote from an unknown neighbor about how said Black person appeared "suspicious." 

" 'Candyman' is a story about unwilling martyrs and about how the victims of violence are often turned into monsters and then not given a voice, and their stories are taken and controlled from the outside," Abdul-Mateen says. "With our 'Candyman,' we're hoping to take back the narrative and the stories of our trauma from a place of victimhood and move it to a place of agency." 

Abdul-Mateen's character Anthony gives victims of racial violence their agency back by asking those who interact with his art to invoke Candyman's spirit by saying his name five times. The same way Black activists keep Floyd, Bland, Taylor and others' names alive by demanding people "say their name."  

"We sort of hypothesize on what happens if the invocation of those names and those spirits came along with consequences as well," Abdul-Mateen says. "I think the question is: What would happen if we could bring them back? If I could bring back George Floyd, if I could bring back Tamir Rice, if I could bring back Breonna Taylor, what would they do? What would they deserve? What would they say?"

Contributing: Brian Truitt

More: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II talks 'Trial of the Chicago 7,' his virtual Emmy win and life in 'The Matrix'

More: New scenes from 'Candyman' reveal hook-wielding horror at American Black Film Festival

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The only thing scarier than a fictional 'Candyman' is the reality of racism

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