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Director Nia DaCosta on her cult Candyman sequel and joining the Marvel universe

As NIA DACOSTA releases her sequel to the cult 1992 slasher movie Candyman, she speaks to MICHA FRAZER-CARROLL about bringing complex themes to the horror genre and becoming the first Black female director – and youngest person ever – to helm a Marvel movie

Candyman director Nia DaCosta

When I speak to Nia DaCosta, her phone is quite literally ringing off the hook. Although we are here to discuss the release of her upcoming adaptation of the 1992 film Candyman, she’s still riding the wave of her 2019 success Little Woods and spinning plates in the Marvel universe, having recently – aged 31 – become the youngest person to ever direct a film for the studio. That film being Captain Marvel 2, starring Brie Larson and Lashana Lynch. Our conversation is punctuated with a few reminders of her busy world; she makes a mental note of one person she needs to call back and apologizes as she quickly handles another urgent matter.

“Two weeks after I wrapped Candyman, I started my next job,” she says, when I ask how the pandemic has impacted her workload. The film, directed by DaCosta, was co-written with Get Out’s Jordan Peele and BlacKkKlansman’s Win Rosenfeld and will finally come out at the end of August after numerous pandemic-induced delays.

“I kind of wished it had come out in 2020, so I could just fully focus on the next thing… Right now, I’m shooting for Marvel and doing press [for Candyman] and it’s been a bit of a juggling act. I also would have loved for people to see it sooner.”

Despite this, the chips have now fallen and DaCosta is content with how things have turned out. Why wouldn’t she be? Since the darkly evocative trailer for the reboot first dropped, Candyman has been forecast as one of the must-see horrors of the year – particularly among fans of Peele’s existing work. It seems that, following the success of Get Out and Us, Black horror is now firmly on the map, and audiences welcome Black-led additions to the canon.

Obviously, I wanted to do things that would make people uncomfortable – or were kind of gross

But as the genre comes into its own, DaCosta is equally aware of its sensitivities. Candyman, which uses the 1992 premise of a neighborhood terrorized by a Black supernatural killer named Candyman, and centers around two Black protagonists – artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his girlfriend Brianna (Teyonah Parris) – has to tread a careful line. “I always like to completely lose interest [in films] when I just see Black bodies being brutalized.”

When it comes to fiction, particularly horror, some of the lines are understandably blurry. How do you make a slasher film, starring Black people, without indulging in what some critics have recently denounced as “Black trauma porn”? “I love horror,” says DaCosta. “So, obviously, I wanted to do things that would make people uncomfortable – or were kind of gross – but I [was also conscious of] how we portrayed Black people getting brutalized.”

In Candyman, DaCosta makes specific artistic choices to circumvent this problem. Early on in the film, Brianna’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) gives us our first look into the violent origins of both the character Candyman and our setting of the Cabrini-Green neighborhood. It’s a gory story. But instead of dramatizing the tale with live actors, the whole fable is told through the use of shadow puppets. It’s a bold and evocative choice, and ultimately means that the Black trauma in the film is still acknowledged, but without ever feeling gratuitous.

The white characters more frequently walk into potentially fatal situations. Most notably, they’re always toying with the idea of summoning the Candyman, which supposedly works by saying his name five times in the mirror. “That was also a humor thing, where the Black characters are like, ‘Oh, hell no!’ Especially Brianna and Troy – they’re like, ‘Black people don’t need to be summoning shit, that’s not what we’re doing!’” I ask DaCosta whether, throughout the course of making the film, she ever said Candyman in the mirror, just to check. “Absolutely not,” she says, deadpan.

Teyonah Parris stars in DaCosta’s Candyman
I’m a huge comic book nerd – I’ve loved Marvel since I was a kid

Although Candyman’s individual murders are a given in the story, many of the film’s themes are more expansive. One idea that rears its head again and again is how pain and hardship moves through a broader community. In DaCosta’s reimagining, Chicago’s Cabrini-Green is an up-and-coming area that has been transformed beyond recognition by gentrification. But despite all this, the physical space is still haunted by the racialized collective traumas of the past, which are all tied up in the Candyman legend.

“What we wanted to do was show that it’s not just one thing that happened a long time ago,” says DaCosta. “Racism isn’t a terrible thing from the past. It’s all cyclical, and it continues on – it’s generational. We pass it down, we teach it, we endure it. Generation after generation.”

She emphasizes that larger-scale phenomenas like gentrification are a crucial part of this racial trauma. “It’s the community sort of torn apart slowly but surely, in particular the Cabrini-Green community… The towers are torn down and they end up sort of scattered around Chicago, and that’s what happens to a lot of communities through the force of gentrification. The movie really is a lot about the community.”

DaCosta’s presentation of the topic is anything but two dimensional. Anthony and Brianna, an artist and an art gallery director, respectively, live in a luxurious apartment in Cabrini-Green. It’s a depiction of wealthier Black Americans that we’ve scarcely seen brought to the screen, barring perhaps Kenya Barris’s Black-ish, or Peele’s Us. DaCosta agrees that she was keen to complicate the usual “Black and white” narratives around the process of gentrification, partly due to her own experiences.

“A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called himself a ‘Black gentrifier’. It was an interesting thing for me, because I was born in Brooklyn, raised mostly in Harlem… and over 10 years, I remember seeing a big shift in how Harlem sort of manifested itself. It started with small things, like a Starbucks or a new bank. But I’ve been on many sides of it: feeling like it was happening to my neighborhood, but also feeling like I was doing it, or a part of a wave that was happening in another neighborhood.”

These complex themes undoubtedly render Candyman as something more thought-provoking than your average slasher and cement the story as part of a broader canon of race-conscious, Black-led horror. As the first Black female director of a Marvel film, I ask whether DaCosta has similar plans when it comes to her take on the upcoming Captain Marvel 2.

“I’m a huge comic book nerd – I’ve loved Marvel since I was a kid,” she tells me. “When I got this job and started finding out about how the company ran, they were like, ‘Talk to all of our directors’. I’d met Ryan [Coogler] before, so I talked to Taika [Waititi] and Chloé [Zhao]… and after a few days… I realized everyone I’d talked to was a person of color.

“So, I think part of what they do is bring all these voices out, and also follow the talent. But that was a really cool moment for me, and a sigh of relief to know that I’m the first Black woman, but I’m not the first non-white guy to direct a movie here.”

Despite her talent, it seems that DaCosta sees herself as part of a cohort of directors that is bringing a range of nuanced perspectives and life experiences to the table, and resists being put on a pedestal. “I think, as opposed to there being some sort of universal ‘Black lady POV’, that we all bring to directing – it’s how we’ve dealt with being Black [and] being a woman in the world. Whether it’s given us more strength, more patience, or less time for bullshit or whatever – that’s what we bring to the table. And I think it’s different for all of us.”

Actor Teyonah Parris (left) and director Nia DaCosta on the set of Candyman

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