Brow Beat

This Haunting Short Film About Real-Life Racist Killings Is Also a Trailer for Candyman

To understand it, you should know both the slasher’s backstory and these American horrors.

A shadow puppet silhouette of a man is in the foreground; his right hand is deformed. In the distance, police officers stand around a cruiser.
Universal

On Wednesday, director Nia DaCosta tweeted out a stunning new trailer for her upcoming Candyman film, along with a brief explanation of the themes she’s exploring in the movie. If it weren’t the trailer for a new Jordan Peele production, it’d be an extraordinary short film about the atrocities this country has inflicted on black people:

The beauty of the style and the horror of the content comes across effortlessly on first viewing, but if you never got around to watching Candyman, and also never got around to learning any history, there’s some context you might be missing. So before diving into the trailer in detail, it helps to know a little more about the original Candyman.

The film comes from “The Forbidden,” a Clive Barker short story from 1985, which is not about race. In the story, Helen, a graduate student who is exploring a decrepit British council estate while working on a thesis about graffiti, starts hearing stories from the residents about a series of gruesome murders. Helen tries to determine whether or not they really happened or are urban legends, but the answer turns out to be both: Once Helen decides that the murders didn’t happen, the killer from the urban legend manifests, complete with a hook for a hand, offering Helen the chance to become his victim—and an urban legend herself:

I am rumor … It’s a blessed condition, believe me. To live in people’s dreams; to be whispered at street corners, but not have to be.

Helen and the people she is studying for her thesis are in different worlds, class-wise, but they’re all white. When Barker and Bernard Rose adapted the story as a screenplay for Rose to direct, however, they set it in the United States to attract American financing, and you can’t make a film about American public housing without dealing with race. Barker and Rose transposed the plot to Cabrini-Green, the enormous Chicago housing project that became nationally infamous for governmental neglect and violent crime. Picking up on the story’s theme of urban legends, they worked in another one, making Candyman a Bloody Mary-type, conjured in mirrors. They also gave him a backstory: He was a wealthy and well-educated black artist hired to paint a portrait of the beautiful daughter of a wealthy white man a few decades after the civil war. Artist and subject fell in love, there was a pregnancy, and then the inevitable lynching, in this case involving bees. The movie, with its gorgeous Philip Glass score and a chilling performance from Tony Todd as the Candyman, is a minor classic of the early 1990s:

Two sequels followed: Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh in 1995 and Candyman: Day of the Dead in 1999, but Nia DaCosta’s Candyman is a direct sequel to the first film. Which brings us back to that new trailer. Rendered in gorgeous Kara Walker-style silhouettes by Chicago-based video production company Manual Cinema over a score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, it depicts a black painter who specializes in portraits of black people after white people have murdered them. We see four of his paintings, each followed by a brief vignette showing what happened to them, and as awful as they are, two of the stories are more or less true to life.

The first vignette is about a man with a deformed hand who works at a candy factory. Walking home from work, he gives some free samples to a couple of children, which gives the police the wrong idea. They chase him, corner him in a basement, and beat him to death. This doesn’t match up with any specific murder, and the details—the deformed hand, the candy factory—suggest that this is an alternate origin story for the Candyman that may appear in the film. It does have a few echoes of real events: the portrait of the victim’s swollen and deformed face evokes the famous photographs of 14-year-old lynching victim Emmett Till, and serial killer Dean Corll ran a candy factory and was in the habit of giving away samples, earning him the nickname Candy Man. But those ripples are pretty far away from the stone: Corll was a guilty white man who was shot to death by an accomplice, not an innocent black man beaten to death by police.

The second and third vignettes, however, draw heavily from real events. The second one, about a black man who moves into a white neighborhood and is dragged to death behind a pickup truck, is based on the 1998 lynching of James Byrd, Jr., although the actual event was far worse than the shadow puppet version. There was no dispute over housing segregation: His killers were white supremacists who gave him a ride, murdered him by dragging him behind their truck, and dropped what was left of his body outside a black cemetery.

The third vignette is based on the 1944 execution of George Stinney, Jr., a 14-year-old who is the youngest person to ever go to the electric chair. Accused of murdering two white girls, Stinney “confessed” to the crime while in police custody—he later claimed the police had starved him and bribed him with food—and was sentenced to death by an all-white jury in proceedings that lasted only a day. His execution was astonishingly inhumane even by American standards: He was too short for the electric chair and had to use a bible as a booster seat, and the photographs of the tiny, terrified boy crying as white hands fasten him into the chair are the kind of thing that leave a permanent stain on your soul. His conviction was overturned in 2014. The fourth vignette, of course, is the story of the Candyman as told in the original movie.

And then there’s the framing story, about the painter documenting what the world did to these black human beings, real and fictional. DaCosta is the first black person to direct a Candyman movie, which is to say she’s the first director for whom Candyman’s origins are more than a creepy campfire tale. She’s also the first Candyman director who knows what it means for an artist to be surrounded by the horrors of white supremacy, and how that reality might bleed into your art, and the first to know what it feels like to have historical atrocities committed against your ancestors turned into ghost stories to amuse the descendants of the people who committed them. You get a sense of those dynamics in the first scene of Candyman’s live-action trailer—and after seeing the shadow puppet trailer, it should be no surprise that DaCosta’s protagonist is a black artist (perhaps the painter from the other trailer) instead of a white academic:

So what does it look like when black artists take control of a story that white artists have been telling for decades, a story that is itself about the ways atrocities age into urban legends and ghost stories? I can’t wait to find out—but in the meantime, I’m not going to be whispering any names into mirrors.