Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Halloween Horror, Day 21: Candyman

Let's have a moment of honesty here: horror movies are really shitty about diversity. They don't often represent non-white folks, and when they do, chances are the token minorities are dying pretty quickly. The optimist in me would like to think that the lack of representation is related to the fact that the overwhelming majority of serial killers tends to be middle-aged white guys, but really, it's not okay. With this in mind, I decided to seek out something a little more diversity.


Candyman (1992, directed by Bernard Rose) goes far beyond token inclusion of African American characters, elevating race to a critical aspect of the plot. Virginia Madsen stars as Helen, an affluent graduate student researching urban legends in Chicago. Her focus is the Candyman (played by Tony Todd) narrative: an free African American during the Civil War era who is murdered for having a consensual relationship with a white woman. What's interesting here is how the Candyman story bridges the gap between Chicago neighborhoods. Candyman's immortal rage is projected onto anyone who dares speak his name 5 times in front of a mirror -- regardless of age, race, gender, or economic background. His anger is blind, and he's willing to kill anyone who dare speaks his name.

We also see a lot of characters moving between racial-coded spaces. Helen asserts herself into a poor, crime-ridden ghetto, mostly occupied by African American tenants -- but not without consequence. The Candyman narrative acts as a reason to keep boundaries up, and the Cabrini Green project tenants are obviously nervous about Helen's motivations. Here, the film does get into some questionable racial territory. Having angry African American tenants of the ghetto physically attack a white woman harkens back to some of the most racist American fears -- the very same motivations that resulted in the murder of Candyman. This illustrates how we haven't created a post-racial society, despite any laws to the contrary.

On a positive note, though, African American characters also move beyond the ghetto. In most films, you'd be hard pressed to see minorities occupy as many positions of power as they do in Candyman; here, we see characters like Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), Helen's best friend and fellow researcher. The main police officer, the passionate mother, and the innocent child are all African American. While they don't all survive to the end of the film (let's remember that this is a horror film), their odds are a lot better than most films of the genre. It's not perfect, but it's a giant improvement.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Clive Barker. As with all films based on Barker stories, Candyman frequently melds together agony and ecstasy. As Candyman tries to lure Helen to her death, he beckons her with descriptions of how delicious death can be: "The pain, I can assure you, will be exquisite [...] Come with me and be immortal." Indeed, the only time Helen seems at bliss is near the end of the film, as she exacts her revenge upon her husband. In this way, the film cannot be simply written off as a fear of the "Black Bogeyman" -- it's a fear that we're all capable of being the bogeyman, especially when victimized.

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