Nia DaCosta, the director of the upcoming Candyman, knows it’s all fake, but she’s not tempting the devil. Photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis.
Nia wears dress and earrings by ALEXANDER MCQUEEN
A formidable newcomer to Hollywood, Nia DaCosta is on the rise. Her first feature film, Little Woods (2019), a thriller about the drug trade starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James, won the Nora Ephron Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival. She was recently named as the next director of the upcoming sequel to Captain Marvel—the first Black woman to direct a Marvel film. And her latest project is the Jordan Peele–produced Candyman, a direct sequel to the original 1992 cult classic of the same name, which follows a young Black couple as they descend into the haunting hellscape of the infamous, hooked Chicagoland specter: Candyman.
I caught DaCosta on the phone as she rushed back to her home in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, post–dental appointment. In the background I could hear the usual cityscape ambiance of traffic, pedestrian chatter, and the occasional birdsong. When she reached her apartment, she let out a sigh of relief: “Finally here. Sorry about all the noise.” She managed to sound both matter-of-fact and apologetic, a friendly laugh wedged in between. Maybe it’s because she's a lifelong New Yorker—born in Brooklyn and raised in Harlem— I imagined her mildly frazzled from the humidity, casually gesturing to the street as if to say, What can you do? Once she was back at home, we got to chatting about the revival process of the legendary fable, her intentions as a storyteller/director, and the nuances of folklore in film.
What is your first memory of Candyman?
The first thing I remember was being dared to say his name in the mirror. I was in elementary school, probably the fifth grade. I would hear about Candyman [from other kids]: Candyman was in the projects. Candyman was over there. I used to live across from the projects and also go to school right next to another project complex. We always heard, "Oh, yeah. Candyman is real. He stays over there."
Did you ever say his name?
Hell, no! (Laughs) Absolutely not. I’m not one for that. No. And I still haven't because I don't have time for that nonsense. It's like, "Look, I just made a movie. I know it's all fake." But I'm also like, "You know what? Let's not tempt the devil."
In the original movie, Candyman’s vengeance is motivated by his own lynching at the hands of a white mob. In your follow-up, his motives have expanded to include the deaths of other Black men. What fueled that expansion of Candyman’s purpose?
Hmm, I don’t actually see it as his motive expanding so much as we’ve turned the camera and said, “Hey, look over here, these men died in the same way. They have a story to tell too." Candyman came from an act of white violence. At the end of the day, that's what Candyman is really about. I think it's about sharing those stories. The dark stories of our history. Sharing who we are and what we've become—that's really something I want to maintain.
As with the first movie, gentrification and its effects are in close focus. Could you talk more about that?
Helen [the main character in the original film, played by Virginia Madsen] has a whole scene where she explains how she lives in a building that was originally built as projects, but because it was on the right side of the highway, it's filled with middle-class people. From the beginning, it was a narrative about gentrification.
For me it was really like, "I'm making this movie about a place, and the place no longer exists in the way it did when the first one came out. Why is that?" One of the answers to that question is gentrification. We talked to a lot of people in Chicago about what happened after Cabrini-Green [a public housing project on the Near North Side] was torn down. I wanted the film to ask what happens after those communities disperse. Where do they go? Gentrification is an act of violence; it is a tool used against Black communities. It was just a very natural thing for that to be a way we entered the story, but that's not the only one.
There's so many things I want to talk about in this film. Besides urban legends, storytelling, and gentrification, I also wanted to talk about Black love and a Black woman's role. The burden that is put on Black women in particular to be strong, or to hold people up, or to be protective. That's why Brianna [Teyonah Parris] is such an important character in the film. I also wanted to talk about how complicated it is to be a Black creative in a white space and white institutions. The main character, Anthony [Yahya Abdul-Mateen II], he's a Black artist and he has a white gallery who sells his work. He works in a very white industry. I'm a Black filmmaker and I work in a very white industry.
When developing Anthony’s character, did you think about what the work he was creating might look like?
Ian Cooper [the producer] and Cara Brower [the production designer] were incredibly instrumental in figuring out what the art would look like. We had amazing artists come in and create Anthony’s work. Cameron Spratley for [his] “early” work and Sherwin Samuel Ovid for the portraits that Anthony makes during the course of the film. Of course, there was a lot of discussion about what the art should look like and why, and that led us to Cameron and Sherwin. Cameron’s work is more abstract. It feels new and fresh, just the thing a gallerist would be excited about—and they are; Cameron’s last show just sold out. But we knew the work Anthony creates during the film would be about faces, endless faces of men, so Sherwin, who does such beautiful portraiture, was the right choice.
A lot of this movie also relies on visual storytelling through puppetry. Could you tell me a little more about that decision and the pros of using another visual medium in the film?
It was so great to use the shadow puppetry. I think it further calcified the deep history and the folklorish elements of the Candyman story and the stories around trauma in general—how we express it, how we turn it into tales to pass down to our children. The pro was that I got to lean on the genius of the amazing minds at Manual Cinema. It was also useful in order to portray violence against Black people without having to show real Black people being brutalized.
You mentioned that you’re also an artist working in a predominantly white field, and you’ve experienced some similar frustrations as Anthony and even Brianna. Could you talk more about that?
Yeah, it’s mostly exhausting explaining basic tenets of one's humanity to people over and over again. It’s like that Toni Morrison quote, "The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
Sometimes it’s being challenged on how you wish to portray violence against Black people; sometimes it’s a very harmless misunderstanding; sometimes it’s a deep-seated, unconscious bias that gets in the way of your process; sometimes it’s well-meaning people—white, Black, whatever—forcing their perspective on you; sometimes it's someone talking to you in a way you know they would never talk to someone white, male, older, etc.; sometimes it’s prolonged, insidious gaslighting; sometimes it's being undermined so often you forget what it's like to have free thought. And this can all happen in one day, on any given project.
You have to bat it all away and stay focused. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you have to fold to the pressure. Other times you have to do more and more and more work to explain. It’s exhausting. The rest of the Toni Morrison quote is: "Somebody says you have no language and you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Fashion Editor JARED ELLNER, Beauty MIMI QUIQUINE, Photo Assistants JORDAN ZUPPA and JIMMY KIM, Special Thanks to SKYLAR PITTMAN and CURT WEBER