Nia DaCosta Breaks Down the Silhouette Stories from 'Candyman'

'Candyman'Credit: Universal Pictures
DaCosta celebrates Candyman and all of its glory and lore through a visual medium we don't often see in cinema. 

Urban legends have a funny way of integrating themselves into our everyday consciousness. Legends linger in the back of our minds when we are alone due to the effective storytelling by the one who tells us the story. Visual storytelling is one of the most effective ways to tell a story that gets a response from the audience, and that couldn't be more true when it comes to urban legends.

In Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, a direct sequel to the 1992 film of the same name, the legend of Candyman is told in many different mediums like spoken words, paintings, and shadow puppetry, an art form not commonly used in modern-day cinema. 

DaCosta’s integration of shadow puppetry lends itself to tell the stories of the violence and dispossession that created Candyman in the first place. She collaborated with Manual Cinema, a Chicago-based design company focused on integrating practical theater elements onto the silver screen, to create the shadow puppetry to pass the lore Candyman down to the audience.

Fandango All Access sat down with DaCosta to break down how the shadow puppet sequences affect the retelling of urban legend in a way the original Candyman failed to do so. Check out the video below: 

The Candyman legend 

If you’re not familiar with Candyman or the urban legend that surrounds him, then let me break it down for you. 

The legend originated from the perfectly twisted mind of Clive Barker and his short story, "The Forbidden." In "The Forbidden," an academic named Helen becomes obsessed with the abandoned flats of Spector Steet Estates, a housing development that has fallen into disrepair. As she photographs the area’s graffiti and deterioration, she discovers a secret kept by the community: an urban legend that would eventually be her demise. 

Heavily inspired by Barker's story, Bernard Rose relocated the story to Chicago's Cabrini Green housing project and retold the story of a bougie outsider fascinated with an urban legend in a Black community. While Rose's Candyman is a bona fide horror classic, its story heavily focuses on the anxieties of a white character that feels "foreign." The story does not attempt to understand the "why" behind the Candyman legend or how the community was influenced by the legend. 

DaCosta’s Candyman makes the belief and obsession with the legend the central focus of the story. Candyman’s legend is brought out of the deaths of Black men. The first death was of the Black painter, Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd), who was brutally murdered in the 1800s after the discovery of his relationship with Caroline Sullivan, the daughter of a white landowner. The legend of Candyman is formed, forgotten, and reformed over and over again as Black men and children are murdered, which turns the Candyman into an avenger of intergenerational trauma. 

'Candyman'Credit: Universal Pictures

The use of shadow puppetry 

From the moment the project was greenlit, DaCosta knew she wanted to tell the story of Candyman through shadow puppets. These puppets are practical cut-outs that are performed on an overhead projector. There is an eeriness to these silhouette figures with their exaggerated limbs and stiff movements that visually represents the horrors of the tales being told. 

The shadow puppet sequences are used periodically throughout the film and in the credits, telling stories about inherited hatred and violence. The puppetry adds a layer of disconnect to separate the audience and storyteller from the real terrors that Black men and children experience. 

DaCosta stated that she was influenced to use shadow puppetry to tell the stories of the Black men and children who became a version of the Candyman after discovering and researching Kara Walker, an artist recognized for her use of cut-paper silhouettes depicting historical narratives haunted by sexuality, violence, and subjugation, and Lotte Reiniger, a German film director and pioneer of the silhouette.

Reiniger believed animation such as the use of silhouettes was the greatest visual medium to work with since the puppets existed on a separate plane of existence that did not follow the rules of our world.

'Candyman' Credit: Universal Pictures

The conscious choice to keep the silhouette of the hand controlling the shadow puppets was to show the audience that the person telling the story is just as important as the story being told. Typically, hands and unwanted shadows would be edited out of this post, but DaCosta saw the importance of the creation and physical control of the narrative being told through the puppets.

There is a moment in the film when Sherman’s (Michael Hargrove) story is being retold through the shadow puppets and the voiceover of William Burke (Coleman Domingo), then Sherman’s story is repeated in the shadow puppet sequence in the credits but it is slightly altered this time by an unknown hand. While the differences are small like how Sherman was discovered by the cops, the visuals highlight what DaCosta found to be so intriguing about legends and how they are passed down by a new storyteller. 

Shadow puppet Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) painting the different Candymen in 'Candyman' Credit: Universal Pictures

The shadow puppetry in Candyman reflects how the storyteller influences the perspective of the legends we are told. The Candyman is a manifestation of those who suffered from violent and unjust murders. When the mythology is pulled apart and reconstructed, notice the differences and why those differences were made. What impact does the shift in location have, or who is telling a specific story? These are questions that DaCosta asks herself and the audience through the shadow stories of those who represent what and who the Candyman truly is. 

What are your thoughts on the shadow puppet sequences in Candyman? Let us know in the comment below!     

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