Candyman Star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II Says Horror Gives ‘Credibility’ To Black Stories
Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Candyman, Ca-…. we still can’t go through it. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II didn’t have that luxury.
In 1992, Tony Todd’s hook-handed, eponymous urban legend terrified and beguiled audiences. Even those who haven’t seen it fear his name, and people still can’t say it five times without trembling at the prospect of being sliced groin-to-gullet.
It’s 2021, and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman has finally been released. A sequel to the original movie, it was originally set to hit cinemas last year, but like many, many films, it was delayed due to the pandemic. However, arriving to rave critical reviews, time doesn’t appear to have affected its frightening impact.
Last year, we spoke to Abdul-Mateen about his role as Anthony in the movie, his relationship with the character, its real-world resonance and horror’s role in Black stories. At the time of the interview, Black Lives Matter protests were raging across the US in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
Were you a fan of the original?
Yahya: I was a fan of Candyman as a sort of iconic character. I was very young when it came out, I probably watched it when I was five or six years old, so I didn’t have a recollection of the movie, but I did have a recollection of going into the bathroom, cutting off the lights and playing this game in the river. I was aware of this guy with the bees in his mouth and the hook, so for me Candyman was more about the iconography of that character.
And then this opportunity circled back around, an opportunity to collaborate with Jordan Peele. He introduced me to a brilliant, up and coming filmmaker Nia DaCosta, and the conversations flowed that way and it seemed like a really good opportunity to come aboard and do some more storytelling in a landscape I hadn’t stepped in before.
I’m too nervous to [say Candyman five times in the mirror], and you must have been doing it loads on set. Were you ever frightened?
Yahya: Even as a kid, I remember attempting to… but never actually finishing the game. I don’t know who even had the courage to say his name five times, and even on set, I had to do it a couple of times for the film but it was never really the most comfortable thing. You would always count them, and know, ‘I got one more time to say, that’s all you gonna get.’
It even scared me watching the trailer. It just does something to you because I grew up with this game, and like I said, he wasn’t a guy from a movie. In my head, he was a real threat. Someone who could actually come from behind me with the bees and the hook and it was… pretty terrifying.
Anthony is an interesting character; ambitious, obsessed. My question is, do you think he’s a sympathetic character?
Yahya: I think he can be… my interpretation of Anthony is he’s a guy who’s trying to reconnect to his past. He’s also looking for himself, he’s trying to find his own artistic voice. He’s looking for his own artistic community. He finds himself as an outsider within this very successful artistic community, and he very much belongs, but as a young Black artist, he sort of plays on the outskirts or at least feels like an outsider.
Similarly to being in a place like Cabrini-Green where he’s from, he goes in and he’s reintroduced to that place, but he’s an outsider. Anthony spends some time travelling through our film, looking for himself, it’s a question about identity and reconnecting to his film in a lot of surprising ways.
The film deals with some really pertinent issues, like white-on-Black violence. These issues have always been relevant in America and the UK, but with what’s happened with George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests… how do you feel having the film come out against this backdrop?
Yahya: It’s interesting. We were making this film in 2019. There was this understanding that the film will very likely have relevance when it comes out in 2020. We imagined that, unfortunately, that the movie and a lot of subject matter would still have some relevance. Nobody had any idea of the type of landscape we’d be setting this movie down in in 2020.
So I think it will resonate very loudly in the current setting in the world, and I think it’s worth doing that. Seeing how lots of young Black men and women are turned into monsters against their will. A lot of that is the story of Anthony, and it’s the original story of Candyman; where do these monsters come from, what is their story and how were they turned into monsters against their own will?
With Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, we’ve got what’s being called a new wave of Black horror. Now we’ve got Nia DaCosta and Candyman. It’s interesting that horror is being used to battle hate in a way, do you think film has the power to do good?
Yahya: I think film has the power to ask questions. I think film has the power, in the same way as art, to pose a perspective to really unpack a hypothesis. One of the really cool things about the horror genre though… it’s no secret the stories that Black Americans, Blacks throughout the world have been telling for years and years, for decades, about police brutality and different forms of oppression.
But a lot of times in history, our stories are not believed when we tell them. So, the interesting thing about horror and a lot of these genres, it gives a certain credibility to the believability of these stories because by setting it in a horror story, we ask the audience to momentarily suspend their disbelief and believe in the horrors that they’re presented with.
I think horror is a very good genre to talk about the different types of terrors that are afflicted upon the Black community; on Black people, on oppressed people, on any people really. I think Jordan and Nia have really attempted to take advantage of that with the film that we’ve made.
Is there anything you can tell me about [The Matrix Resurrections]?
Yahya: I can’t say anything about Matrix 4 other than I’m very excited about doing it, and I am doing it in a big way.
How does it feel to be in a pop culture giant?
Yahya: It’s an honour. It’s a very smart project, a phenomenal creative team and we’ve seen how much they’ve been able to move the needle in terms of storytelling and graphics, and storytelling on that scale and the action scenes and things like that. To be part of this new generation of The Matrix, really just continuing on what was good in the past, I’m really excited to see what we’ve been able to do with that.
Candyman is in cinemas now
Interview conducted by Tom Percival
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