This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
Join the discussion on discord (https://discord.gg/zsMTBcnTcC) or on our Round Table Discussions on 12 November 2022 (https://us06web.zoom.us/j/89173630311). See www.fantastikajournal.com for details
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Podcast by: Trae Toler
"What is Blood for if not for Shedding?":
Bodily Transfiguration as Racial Violence and Trauma in Benard Rose's Candyman (1992) and Nia DaCosta's Candyman (2021)
Key Words: Candyman, Race, Racial Violence, Systemic Oppression, Monstrous Bodily Transgression
“What is innocent blood if not for shedding?” Candyman asks in Bernard Rose’s 1992 film Candyman. This quote harkens back to his own past. Before he was Candyman, he was Daniele Robitaille the son of a slave turned into an artist. Robitaille’s hand was severed from his wrist and replaced with a rusty metal hook. He was then lathered with honey as bees stung and ate away at his chest cavity. Robitaille was turned into a monster at the hands of a violent white mob simply for loving a white woman. In other words, because he feels his innocent blood was shed, he now forces society to face the monster they created anytime one dares to summon him. To others, he is a monster, but upon closer analysis, Candyman is a victim. His hook and chest-hive of bees are grotesque bodily transgressions symbolic of racial oppression and racial caste in America.
In 2021, Nia DaCosta invited audiences once again to summon Candyman offering a direct sequel to Rose’s original film. In summoning the monster, DaCosta successfully challenges the audience’s understanding of Candyman and suggests that any victim of racial violence ultimately becomes a Candyman. The stories birthed from these acts of violence become cautionary tales to minority
children who must navigate a society that seeks to otherize and vilify them. In the film’s climax, William Burke, a man who lived his life solely in the Cabrini-Green Project Homes, states, “Candyman is a way to deal with the fact that these things happened to us, are still happening!” Ultimately, this podcast aims to address how the bodily transgressions displayed in both films, Candyman (1992) and Candyman (2021), blends the fantastical with the historical to offer a damning critique on generational racial trauma and violence in America.
About the Author: Trae Toler teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Brunswick Community College. Toler’s research is grounded in analyzing identity in horror cinema. Additionally, Toler’s film review of Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019) was published in the May 2021, volume 5 edition of Fantastika Journal.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 7: Violent Oppressions, which will take place at 6:15pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Trae Toler. Trae teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Brunswick Community College. Toler’s research is grounded in analyzing identity in horror cinema. Additionally, Toler’s film review of Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019) was published in the May 2021, volume 5 edition of Fantastika Journal.
Clive Barker, in his famous short story, “The Forbidden,” introduced the world to the power of an urban legend. Look in a mirror, say his name five times, summon him and he will respond: Candyman… Candyman… Candyman… Candyman…Very few make it past four. While Barker infused socioeconomic critiques on class with his hook-handed, jaundiced-turning, white monster, it wouldn’t be until Bernard Rose made the titular decision to change the race of the monster that Candyman became a legend in horror cinema. With this crucial deviation from Barker’s original story, Rose encouraged interdisciplinary discussions regarding race, class, and violence in America. Though Candyman appears in two following direct-to-DVD- sequels, which Tony Todd, in his interview with YouTube Film Critic channel “Jake Take’s classifies as “mis-steps,” it wasn’t until Nia DaCosta’s 2021 requel that Candyman was summoned once again. Throughout the film DaCosta deviates from Rose in her exploration of the difference between The Candyman versus A Candyman. In other words, like William Burke, a man who resides in the Cabrini–Green Housing projects, or Candyman’s place of birth, states, “Candyman ain’t a he, he’s the whole damn hive.” This podcast episode aims to discuss the intertextuality of the conversation between Bernard Rose and Nia DaCosta. Both Rose and DaCosta call upon the fantastical to paint grotesque scenes and images of bodily transfiguration fueled by racially motivated violence. It is my goal to articulate how DaCosta is building upon the Candyman-folklore laid forth by Rose to offer a damning critique on generational racial trauma and violence in America.
Before delving into my analysis of DaCosta’s text, it would be negligent on my part to assume that you may be familiar with the story of Daniel Robitaille, so I will provide a brief summary here. In doing so, this summary creates a foundation upon which I will build my analysis. Danielle Robitaille , as best displayed in Bernard Rose’s film Candyman and Bill Coden’s sequel, Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh, is the story of forbidden, unrequited love. Robitaille was the son of a slave, pursuing a career in art. A wealthy landowner commissioned Robitaille to, as arrogant professor, Philip Purcell, puts it in Rose’s film, “capture [his daughters] virginal beauty.” Robitaille and the daughter, who we later find out is Caroline Sullivan in the sequel, were in love with one another and conceived a child. Finding out about this, Caroline’s father organized an angry white mob to lynch Robitaille as punishment for loving his daughter. The mob cheered as white men held Robitaille down, sawing off his right hand—the hand he used to express his art—and replaced it with a rusty metal meat hook emblematic of the castration of black male slaves as punishment for rape…but that wasn’t enough. The mob then lathered Robitaille with honey from a nearby beehive and let bees flock to the sweet nectar to sting and eat away at his chest cavity. Christopher Robinson, in his article “Bernard Rose’s Candyman and the Rhetoric of Racial Fear in the Reagan and Bush Years,” explores the image of the bees in Robitaille’s death in his essay when he states, “the insects also bring to mind urban legends about killer bees…the obsession with these bees is linked to white fears of racial hybridization and violent retribution. Frequently called the Africanized Bee…the media had stoked apocalyptic fears of the insects for several years prior [while] playing on unconscious fears of “black aggression” and “racial pollution.” (406). Robitaille died a slow painful death while the infuriated white mob cheered, repeating the name in unison “Candyman.” Rose and Coden utilize grotesque bodily horror and violent transgressions against the black male body to tell a narrative of one man’s experience regarding racial violence in America.
DaCosta builds upon this narrative, but articulates that this is not the narrative of one sole man. No, Candyman is not an isolated incident, but rather it is the cyclical nature of racial violence that happens all to often. DaCosta shows her audience the birth and creation of a Candyman, while forcing her audience to face and reconcile their privileged negligence regarding racial violence. Throughout the film, Anthony McCoy, portrayed by actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is the primary source of bodily transgression. He serves as the protagonist and focal point of the film as the audience is forced to watch his agonizing transformation into the monster known as Candyman. At the outset of the film, Anthony McCoy is a struggling artist, dating Brianna Cartwright, an aspiring art gallery director. Searching for inspiration for his next work of art, Anthony visits the Cabrini–Green housing projects to research the urban legend of Helen Lyle. It is here that Nia DaCosta displays her first transgressed body: the Cabrini–Green community itself. Cabrini–Green is a transgressed body in that the community is victim to both white washing and gentrification. Visually, this is best displayed in the image of the sole church in the community. Anthony completes research and finds an old picture of the Cabrini–Green church. Originally, this church was black with small intricate designs. DaCosta holds on this image for one second (00:14:37). Immediately following this image, Anthony lowers his picture of the church, revealing that now, the church is completely white. DaCosta exemplifies that the church has undergone a complete whitewashing in its most literal sense. The whitewashing of the Cabrini–Green church is also emblematic of the whitewashing of the Candyman urban legend altogether. Throughout Rose’s initial film in 1992, Robitaille, as Candyman often refers to the residents of Cabrini–Green as his “congregation.” Robitaille paints himself as a god-like entity punishing any member of his congregation who fails to fear him. Fear fuels Robitaille’s congregation in Rose’s film; however, the first scene of DaCosta’s movie is a retelling of the myth. DaCosta subverts audience expectations in this moment, and instead of hearing the urban legend of Candyman, we here the urban legend of Helen Lyle—the white protagonist in Rose’s initial film who descended upon the Cabrini–Green community to complete research on Candyman. The whitewashed church is symbolic of the whitewashing of the Candyman urban legend. Robitaille no longer holds the fear of his congregation, because Helen’s story replaced his. Thus, not only is the Cabrini–Green housing community a transgressed body, but the urban legend itself is a transgressed body.
During this scene, Anthony meets William Burke. As mentioned before, William has lived his entire life in the Cabrini–Green housing projects. He has watched his community undergo a violent cycle of whitewashing and gentrification. It is interesting to note that William takes Anthony to a laundromat he owns in Cabrini–Green. This serves as a symbolic de-washing, or reclamation, of the urban legend. Up until this point, Anthony was interested in the story of Helen, in fact he knew nothing of the history of Candyman until William opened his eyes to the true legend. William witnessed the violent creation of a Candyman in the opening of the film as his scream alerted police to the hiding location of Sherman Fields, an innocent black man who was accused of lacing neighborhood candy with razor blades. William listened as cops pushed past him and beat Sherman to death on the spot. When Anthony asks, “What’s Candyman?” DaCosta solidifies the bodily transgression against this urban legend as Candyman is completely dehumanized through the use of the word “what” as opposed to “who.” Candyman is not a person; in this moment, to Anthony, Candyman is a thing. William responds, “For me, Candyman was a guy named Sherman Fields.” Through the subtle use of the introductory phrase “For me,” DaCosta hints at the cyclical nature of the birth of this legend. This introductory phrase is a subtle foreshadowing of the final scene of the film where DaCosta fully explores Anthony’s visceral bodily transgression.
Though the act and portrayals of whitewashing are crucial to DaCosta’s depiction of Cabrini–Green as a transgressed body, it is also essential to look at the commentary DaCosta provides regarding the gentrification of the community. DaCosta offers commentary on gentrification within the first ten minutes of her film when Anthony—in reference to his and Brianna’s apartment complex--states, “they tore it down and gentrified the shit out of it.” Brianna interjects, “Translation. White people built the ghetto and then erased it when they realized they built the ghetto.” In these two lines of dialogue DaCosta masterfully depicts gentrification as an act of violence. Notice Anthony’s violent language: “tore…it down.” Notice who has agency in Brianna’s translation. The community is being subjected and enacted upon without any consent, or even care for that matter. In this violent removal and destruction of the community, the oppressor is still the party with agency. Thus, DaCosta depicts the Cabrini–Green community, and any gentrified community for that matter, as a transgressed body subject to violent acts of removal and replacement.
The quintessential transgressed body in DaCosta’s film is that of Anthony McCoy. DaCosta invites her audience to witness the visceral creation of a monster. While Anthony is taking photos of the Cabrini–Green church, a bee stings his right hand. This small sting is what DaCosta uses to begin Anthony’s transformation into a Candyman. Note how Anthony’s transformation cannot begin until he comes face-to-face the gentrified, white-washed Cabrini Green. Bodily transgression in relation to racial violence and trauma is cyclical.
Throughout the film, Anthony’s sting worsens and eats away at his hand turning into a small-scabbed over wound. This small sting, symbolizing racial trauma, is eating away at Anthony. A prominent scene depicting the worsening of Anthony’s wounded hand occurs when Anthony visits the apartment of Finley Stephens, an art critic who disliked Anthony’s original Candyman-inspired artwork titled “Say My Name.” Finley originally felt that Anthony’s work spoke in “didactic knee-jerk cliches about the ambient violence of the gentrification cycle.” Immediately following this critique Finley, talking to Anthony blames, “your kind” for “pioneering” the cycle of gentrification. Though the “your kind” Finley assures that she is referencing here are “artists,” DaCosta uses this moment to subtly reflect the victim-blaming rhetoric utilized all to steadily in conversations regarding the oppression of communities of color. Now, Finley claims that Anthony’s work feels “eternal.” Though in comparing the two scenes, in the latter scene, Anthony is the character portrayed with agency and power. Calling back to when Finley first engaged with his work, Anthony rhetorically asks, “artists gentrify the hood?” Who do you think makes the hood? The city cuts of a community and waits for it to die, then they invite developers in and say ‘Hey, you artists, you young people, you white, preferably or only, please come to the hood its cheap, and if you stick it out a couple of years we’ll bring you a Whole Foods.” (00:45:14). In this line of dialogue, DaCosta once again offers commentary on gentrification as an act of violence against a community; though now, Anthony is the individual relaying this information thus symbolizing his understanding of the depiction of a community as a transgressed body. DaCosta couples this conversation with a close look at Anthony’s worsening scab. What once was a sting is now covering a large portion of his hand. DaCosta provides a close-up shot as Anthony picks at this scab and pulls it off thus showing how this bodily transgression, symbolic of racial violence, is taking over Anthony. The act of picking at the scab also calls back to American political rhetoric regarding “the scab of race.” A 2018 headline from, politically left-leaning, MSNBC’s YouTube page reads, “As President, Donald Trump Pokes and Prods at Scab of Race.” On the opposite end of the American political spectrum, a 2013 headline from the Washington Times, reads, “Obama picks scab off America’s racial wound.” Providing these two opposing headlines shows that both ends of the American political spectrum utilize, and exploit, scab rhetoric in relation to racial trauma—though they neglect the actual wound, or cause thereof. Now, DaCosta takes that rhetoric and forces her audience to visualize and see the grotesque scab for what it is—a bodily transgression fueled by generations of racial trauma eating away at the very body it covers. If the scab is picked and prodded, the wound can never heal.
Anthony’s body worsens throughout the film, reaching its peak grotesque and decrepit display in the climax of the film when Brianna, looking for Anthony in the Cabrini Green church, finds William holding Anthony against his will. The wound from the sting, or—as stated above—the visual symbol of racial trauma and neglect—is no longer contained to Anthony’s right hand; now, Anthony’s wound covers the entire right side of his body. William, talking to Brianna, states
When something leaves a stain, even if you wash it out, it’s still there. You can feel it, a thinning, deep in the fabric. This neighborhood got caught in a loop. The shit got stained in the exact same spot over and over until it finally rotted from the inside out. They tore down our homes so they could move back in. We need Candyman, ‘cause this time he’ll be killing their fathers, their babies, their sisters. (01:14:15-01:16:00)
William is taking ownership over and finding power in the transgressed body. Notice also how William gives agency to the party who stained the community. It is only through embracing and directly fighting against the cyclical stain, that the community can reclaim agency. As he stated earlier in the film, William claims, “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that these things happened. That they’re still happening.” (00:53:35-00:53:45). So now, William is taking it upon himself to create a new Candyman. This is a crucial deviation on DaCosta’s part in that, Candyman is no longer birthed out of an act of racial violence, but now he is created out of a need to fight back against racial oppression, violence, gentrification, and trauma. DaCosta displays that the world does not need another artist exploiting black trauma. The world does not need performative activism which in turn perpetuates neglect and complicity causing further racial violence. The world, despite if it wants it or not, is going to witness the monster it created. In DaCosta’s film, Candyman is no longer a monster “of” his community, but rather he is a monster “for” his community. If you remain complicit in the face of racial trauma, then unapologetically the charge or your neglect will be your life. DaCosta dares her audience to summon him, because in doing so, you will be forced to face the decrepit, grotesque transgressed body symbolic of decades of neglect and cultural restraining from the cyclicality of racial trauma.
Usually, as the credits roll that signifies the end of the film; yet, DaCosta, through the use of shadow puppets, utilizes this space to blend the fantastical with the historical through her depiction of racially motivated crimes throughout American history. These are, in my opinion, the most powerful images in the film as they serve as the perfect bookend to accompany the film her audience just watched. DaCosta incorporates depictions of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old black child who was convicted of murder and died by electrocution only to be exonerated of the crime 70 years later. Lindsey Bever, in the Washington post writes, “George Stinney Jr. sat so small in the electric chair that the straps were too big to contain him. The 14-year-old had to sit on books for his head to reach the headpiece. And when the switch was flipped, the convulsions knocked down the large mask exposing his tearful face to the crowd.” DaCosta also portrays the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. where three white supremacist men tied Byrd to the back of their pick-up truck, dragging his body for three miles. The men then left Byrd’s torso in front of a black church in the community.
In blending the historical with the fantastical, DaCosta forces the audience to pull back the scab of racial violence and pry into the cyclical nature of these violent crimes. In the fantastical, through speculative fiction, DaCosta—highlighting each victim as a Candyman—privileges and gives the victim of racially motivated violence power; unfortunately, historically, this power is never reclaimed—though there is power in a name. The victims do not come back as ghosts seeking vengeance, but they do haunt the collective conscious pertaining to race in America as these victims are forced to leave their stories as cautionary tales to minority children. It is our duty to take up the hook and transfigure the cyclical body of racial violence and caste in America. It is our duty to say their name: Emitt Till, George Stinny Jr., James Byrd Jr. , Travon Martin, George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, among many others,. It is our duty to tell their story, to say their names, and most importantly, it is our duty to…“tell everyone.”