The industrious director reveals how she put a personal stamp on her Jordan Peele-produced refit of a horror classic.
In an industry where Black female directors are few and far between Nia DaCosta is unprecedented. Her first film Little Woods premiered at Tribeca and won the Nora Ephron Award. After directing some of the finest episodes of Top Boy she was chosen by Jordan Peele to write and direct Candyman. Next she will helm the upcoming Captain Marvel 2, the first sole Black female director on a Marvel film.
LWLies: Before embarking on this project, how did you process the racial politics of Bernard Rose’s 1992 film version?
DaCosta: That film is a product of its time. I love Bernard’s work and I think he did such a great job with the first film but it’s definitely told from an outsider’s point of view. To expand the racial politics and reimagine this story’s continuation a lot of it was about shifting the point of view. Being a Black director I was able to look at this story and do something new with it, something more expansive, that was very important to me. But for me when I first saw the film I wasn’t really thinking of the racial politics, I was thinking, ‘Oh my god there’s a scary guy that lives in the projects’. When I watched it again I was could see there were so many different lenses through which you can watch this movie, through a feminist lens, through a white feminist lens, through the lens of race and gentrification and I wanted to expand on all of that.
When telling a story centred around a lynched Black man was it uncomfortable having his legacy be predominantly terrorising a Black community?
Re-watching that movie I didn’t get why he was killing Black people, and chasing after this white woman. We wanted to be a bit more specific in our film about exactly how Candyman operates. At the end of the first film you realise he’s going after this woman as she’s the reincarnated the love of his life who got him lynched in the first place and he’s going to return the favour. We talked a lot about how to shift from that film to this one.
Clive Barker’s novel picks at a privileged white saviour-narrative. Was that something you wanted to address?
The first film has this white-saviour narrative with Helen at its centre. We talked about that when it came to continuing its legacy. We talked about it a lot with the crew and the actors. Without giving anything away, the film turns that white-saviour narrative on its head.
This film has been described as a “spiritual sequel” despite being set at Cabrini Green and having returning characters. Why the distinction?
It gives us the room to do something new and different with the source material. Bernard Rose took Clive Barker’s story and changed it whilst keeping the essence, and we wanted to do the same thing.
Eddie Murphy’s jokes in Raw that you can’t make horror films with Black people because we would immediately leave a haunted house. It came to mind in your trailer when Teyonah Paris asks who would summon Candyman and the trailer cuts straight to a young white girl. Are those contrasts key to making a Black horror film?
In a film like ours that is so much about race and about Black people being in a space of terror vs white people being in a space of terror, that is a contrast that you can play with. But I also don’t think that all horror films by Black filmmakers have to be centred around race-based trauma. Some people do just have a lot of freedom and some people don’t, and in a film about black trauma, it’s something you can have fun with.
“Jordan Peele always treated me as his equal rather than someone who should be learning from him.”
The Candyman teaser reframes Candyman himself as an unwilling martyr. I picked up references to George Stinney Jr and James Byrd Jr. Are we to view Candyman as an antihero rather than a villain?
I always felt he was an antihero. He is a villain in that he is doing bad things to people but it more than that. What I wanted to do instead of just creating a character who is bad and who’s story gets callously told over an intellectual dinner is turn him into a real person and a real human being and see how a monster gets made. For that short I definitely wanted to allude to real people but the people in the shadow puppetry are not specifically real people. I don’t want to suggest that George Stinney Jr is Candyman but his story is one that really haunted me. He was 14 when he was killed by the state and that really informed how I thought about Candyman.
People were so excited when the Candyman trailer dropped, but it was framed it as the new Jordan Peele film. How did you deal with that erasure?
I get it. Jordan is the reason this film got made and the reason I got hired. He’s the one that everyone knows. Having said that, there is definitely a tendency of erasing female filmmakers. On a personal level I’m not super invested in being a well-known director, but abstractly it was moving to then see people trying to set the record straight.
How did the collaboration with Jordan work?
I had to be able to express my own aesthetic and vision. We have very different aesthetics so it was hard to balance what I would do with the movie that we were all making. He always treated me as his equal rather than someone who should be learning from him. It was very interesting and there was a lot of negotiation along with lots of support for some of the weird things I wanted to do. He really pushed to put me forward, to emphasise that this was Nia’s movie. He’s mindful to not steal the spotlight or distract from what I was doing.
As a genre fan is there anything else you would like to create a spiritual sequel to?
The Cabin in the Woods by Drew Goddard. At the end of the movie the gods from below come up and I would love to see what happened next.
So many writer/directors make their work semi-autobiographical. Are we going to see something about a young woman from New York?
I’ll probably never make a film about a young woman from New York. I think my next film is going to be very, very different from everything I’ve done so far.
So now you are in horror you don’t think you are going to stay there?
I never really saw myself as someone who would direct one type of movie or have a particular brand, y’know? It’s not what interests me. I don’t set out to do things very differently every time, it is nice to have some variety.
Published 22 Aug 2021
By Anton Bitel
Bernard Rose’s cult 1992 horror, based on a Clive Barker short story, tackles sex, class and race in inner-city Chicago.
The plight of Daniel Kaluuya’s lead character has its roots in a very real everyday struggle.