‘Candyman’: A Survey of America’s Historical Aversion to Urban Blackness

The lore of Bernard Rose's 1992 film, Candyman, explores the exploitation of Black tragedy into white, middle-class urban legend.

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In the timeline of pinnacle moments in Black Civil Rights history in America, the years that come to mind are likely 1865, when the 13th amendment was ratified, or 1964, when de jure segregation was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, between these dates, and beyond them, will lie many more significant years and events that outline Black Americans’ fight against oppression  in the United States. One of which is in 1992, when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King, and the infamous L.A. riots ensued.

There is a plethora of films that cover these black racial relations in America, some of the more famous ones including dramas like Glory, Selma, and Do the Right Thing. In 1992, only months after the Rodney King Riots, Candyman hit theaters. Aside from the content within the narrative, its mere timeliness proves a strong indicator of its intention. The film follows Helen, a university student, who is doing her graduate thesis on the urban legend of Candyman (Tony Todd). Legend says that if you say his name 5 times in the mirror, he’ll appear behind you, and with his hook for a hand, split you from your groin to your gullet.

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“Do I know you?” “No, but you doubt me.”

Though students giggle at his tale, telling the concocted narrative of a young suburban teen who fell victim to his attack, Candyman is a certified fear for the black community living in the Cabrini-Green housing project. Set in Chicago, a city with a dense history of gentrification, and a city that is still very segregated, Candyman surveys America’s infamous aversion to blackness and dismissal of black urban poverty.

Candyman is a black tragedy sensationalized into a middle-class fiction. Helen is introduced to his lore by a college student who rattles off an artificial legend, similar to that of Bloody Mary. She only later finds out the truth of Candyman, and his murders that took place in Cabrini-Green. He is a present fear on the grounds of the projects, and those who are able to disregard him as a myth are doing so out of their own privilege. He is a symbol of violence within poor, black communities. His lore states that he comes from inside the walls of Cabrini-Green, stigmatized as “Candyman Country,” a representation that his origin is within the community. The headline publicizing his murder of Ruthie Jean reads, “What killed Ruthie Jean?” with the subheader declaring “Life in the projects,” as if to answer its own question. Cabrini-Green is a place that people don’t dare to even drive past, including the police officers, who neglect the citizens who live there through meager responses to their pleas for help. 

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Even Candyman’s origin story reflects America’s grim racial history. Less than 40 years after slavery was abolished, he was an acclaimed artist who was murdered after he fell in love with and impregnated a white woman he was hired to paint. The mob sent to slay him, mirroring the KKK, cut off his right hand and tortuously murdered him, smothering him in honey and leaving him to be mortally stung by bees. Candyman’s personal sense of worth, passion, and human life were all explicitly stripped away because he violated society’s oppressive expectations of racial relations. After he was burned at the pyre, his ashes were spread on the site that would become Cabrini-Green, where the legacy of systemic oppression continues, carried by the ancestral history in the soil of Black America. 

As Helen researches the history of Cabrini-Green, she uncovers that its layout is identical to her own condo. Her apartment building was erected with the intention of being a housing project until the city discovered that nothing would separate it from Chicago’s Gold Coast, so it was modified into condos. Then Cabrini-Green was built so that the “ghetto” would be physically cut off from the rest of Chicago by the L train and the highway. The verity of de facto segregation’s persistence, far past its lawful counterpart’s abolition, is another thematic inclusion within the lore of the film: gentrification. The city’s skyline is a backdrop to Cabrini-Green, as the project has been deliberately pushed to the outskirts. Black poverty is treated as an eyesore, shoved just outside of the peripherals of Chicago’s line of sight. It’s blatant racial and economic evasion at the institutional level, furthering America’s history of imperialism and displacement of people of color. 

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When Helen is attacked in the bathrooms at Cabrini-Green, her attacker is a black man wielding a hook. Prior to striking her, he says “I hear you’re looking for Candyman bitch. Well, you found him,” declaring the synonymy of black violence with the figure of Candyman. Post-attack, public interest in publishing her thesis spikes, aggrandizing her white perspective of black urban violence over those within the community, who are left silenced. Candyman reminds the viewer that those in black, impoverished communities are viewed as expendable. A black woman and child are slaughtered at the hook of Candyman, and the police hardly show up. But the police coordinate a sweep of the entire project following Helen’s attack. In Candyman’s proposition of an ultimatum to Helen: to save her life or the baby’s, her stagnancy in answering results in the death of Bernadette, another black woman. 

Candyman thoroughly submerges itself in thematic content that reflects America’s perpetual conflict with racial oppression, but it does not do so flawlessly. The film utilizes exploitative racial and classist tropes for its story-building. Colorism is blatant. Bernadette, Helen’s thesis partner, and best friend is a light-skinned black woman portrayed as middle-class, educated, and evasive to Cabrini-Green. Whereas, the custodians at Helen’s university, all the residents in the housing project, and Candyman, the villain himself, are all dark-skinned black people. The residents of Cabrini-Green speak with a dramatized, stereotypically black dialect, especially Anne-Marie, while Bernadette speaks “eloquently.” The last quarter of the film also heavily leans into a white savior complex, making Helen the hero that banishes Candyman from the projects, sacrificing herself in the process.

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Despite its faults, Candyman is a socially aware horror film that raises a mirror to the realities that are inset into the earth of the United States. Metropolitan areas in America are often associated with liberalism, with smaller suburbs and rural areas viewed as the hub of conservatism in the nation. Cities, however, are in no way a haven from the systemic racial struggles woven in America’s fabric. The optics bestowed upon black poverty are not the persistence of the past, and epithets of severance, like “Candyman Country,” only strengthen the perspective of “the other” that keeps people of color socially persecuted. It is Helen’s white denial of Candyman’s existence that draws him out of the shadows of Cabrini-Green. It is his infamy that affirms that ethnic oppression is not nearly obsolete, and Candyman prompts a resolution to the inquiry as to why its titular legend is distinctly labeled as an urban one.


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