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Cinema’s first major Black movie monster, the towering hooked specter — arguably a metaphor for white America’s fear of the Black man — can only be called up by looking at your own reflection in a piece of glass. The legend’s terrorizing power is fueled, in part, by larger societal perceptions of low-income housing communities and who it thinks occupies them.
The original film was based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” but the buzzy tale’s origins also parallel real events. In 1987, reporter Steve Bogira published the story of Ruthie Mae McCoy. A resident of Chicago’s near-South Side ALBA Homes, she had called the police to report an intruder. Someone had exploited an architectural flaw in her housing complex and crawled through her bathroom mirror. Days after the call, she was found in her apartment, shot to death.
Most of what audiences know and understand about Candyman and his victims is all about framing — of the villain, the violence and the victim. Among those victims across films is Vanessa Williams’ Anne-Marie McCoy. In the 1992 film, she’s a young Black single mother and resident of the Cabrini-Greens public housing complex. After her baby is kidnapped by Candyman (Tony Todd), he’s saved by an affluent white woman and graduate student, Helen (Virginia Madsen), who had been poking around the community while trying to study the horror legend.
For DaCosta’s follow-up, Anne-Marie returns in a twist that underpins the director’s entire story — an effort, Williams says, to reframe the original narrative not just of the ’90s film, but of horror stories, real and fictional, about Black people. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Williams about her return to the screen, what (and who) Anne-Marie’s story represents and how the spiritual sequel updated the original story’s point of view, but continued its inclusive legacy in areas like hair and makeup production.
Before we get into the deeper stuff, I want to ask about your character’s viral moment from the trailer. What are the origins of that move?
This is a spiritual woman who has been praying and on her knees. She survived this trauma with her child and in her community. This is how we do in church, you know? But I was frankly so surprised when it became like this whole viral moment because it was just organic and authentic to the scene. I had no idea that I was going to do that. I had no preconceived notion about it. It just came to me having invested the way I do in all my characters but certainly bringing my A-game so I could match what my boy Yahya [Abdul-Mateen II] was doing and not disappoint my wonderful director Nia, and the words that she and Jordan [Peele], my new best friend, and Win Rosenfeld, put on that page. It was about bringing all that to life and making this woman a three-dimensional person. I was grateful that everybody responded to it the way they did. You never know what’s going to connect. I guess it just speaks to the lived experience and shared experience of the community that knows how to behave in church. They’ve been shaped like that. When a Black woman shushes you, you know what to do.
What was it like to return to this character — which I’m sure you’re regularly recognized for — after so many years? Did you receive a direct offer to return?
I’m so grateful and filled with gratitude to be in a number of iconic films and I count this one, the one in ’92 and certainly this one as an instant classic. Ian Cooper was on the set with us — he’s the creative director of Monkeypaw [Productions] — and he talked about he and Jordan watching the original as teens in Jordan’s bedroom. It felt so marvelous to be a part of this wonderful creative imagination. There’s nothing tired about it. I’m just really, really grateful and honored that the work that I do has staying power and the work that I do has such a great impact.
And listen, actors live for the offer-only status. You want to feel like you’ve treaded and pounded enough pavement, and done enough things that you’d never have to audition again. Actors, we always have to be proven — tap dancing out there like, “Pick me! Pick me!” So it’s nice to have a break from that. To have an offer is to say you’re already proven. We love you. Come on in and play with us. It’s the ideal way to work and the way I always want to work. And to have Monkeypaw and Jordan Peele and Nia trust me to re-create that — I just think it was a marvelous testament, and I’m here for all the offers so yes, it was an offer, thank you very much. (Laughs.) Finally, I have arrived.
From the original to DaCosta’s follow-up, you play a Black mother at two different points in her life. How were you approaching the growth of this character and the passage of time? Were you ever researching or just drawing from somewhere personal?
When I was 14 years old, I had my first professional acting class and it was there that I got that acting is not pretending. It’s being real, it’s telling the truth, and you use your instrument to use your lived experience and be authentic about lifting the life of a real person off of the page. The sense that I can do that with honor and respect to my whole community is what I’m here for. I come from do-or-die Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, New York, so I come from those people. I am those people. It’s in me. But when I first started Anne-Marie’s journey, I was not a mother, but I had been mothered and around mothers and their children. So I knew what that would look like. And then jumping forward to the incarnation of Anne-Marie now, I am a mother — a mother of two Black boys who have to navigate this very scary world. I’m a Black woman in this world, having to navigate all of those class and racial tensions in the work that I do, in the places and spaces that I’ve been all over the world. I’ve seen the difference between how I’m treated as a notable someone that you recognize and how somebody else might be treated because they weren’t in a TV show. I’ve felt the dichotomy and incongruence of that. So, I took this on with respect and deep meaningfulness.
I think one interesting thing about your character is that she navigates two common identity themes in horror: Blackness and motherhood. When you first sat down with the team, what did you want viewers to get out of Anne-Marie’s layered story?
When I got with Nia, we talked about Anne-Marie’s journey and just what she was doing now. How Black people and this mother — this woman — survived the trauma to her, to her community, and had the resiliency to keep going to pull herself up out of it into a better financial situation and give [her son] the support to be an artist in the world. That is a particular kind of parenting choice. We don’t get to choose what our children do, but it does speak to their relationship and her ability to respect him not getting some sort of more structured kind of job as a lawyer or businessman, right?
What we also wanted to take from it is what Jordan Peele says about the movie — that it centers on the eternal dance between the monster and victim, and the racial history of this country. So that, try as she might, this systemic racism that this good mother crawling through the ashes and lifting herself up faces still can’t protect her child. That’s a monster, that’s the real violence. That’s what Black Horror is really about: living in this country and being afraid for our existence and the existence of our family and children. I mean, that’s what the most terrifying takeaway from it is. And I believe that the movie serves us in empowering us and us being able to heal and handle it, in that we are telling the story. We held the narrative, we get to reframe it and tell it totally like it is. And that we don’t have to die.
Speaking of death, the film handles its largest narrative around Black death in a very specific visual way. Even down to who was dying, why they were dying — this narrative felt heavy with intentionality.
Absolutely, and that kind of thing is brilliant. It’s not put upon, but it has a sort of retributional kind of feeling in terms of the point of view. We’re not careless with it. We’re not careless even in the retelling of the horrors. Tananarive Due [UCLA professor of Black horror and afrofuturism] speaks about this in the wonderful companion piece to the movie that lives on the [Candyman movie] website — the impact of Black horror. She talks about how Nia’s use of puppetry gives us some distance on the horror, a way to talk about it and digest it without being traumatized again. We get to have this slasher horror entertainment and really be entertained because it’s not at our expense.
You know when we see a horror film and Black people are the first to go, it does something to us. Even if that’s your preferred genre. It’s unsettling. When we walk out of the theater, we know that nobody really died, but those horrors that Black people feel? We know that at any moment, we can get the news flash on our phone and we got another hashtag. Another person died at the hands of police violence. There’s the way that even gentrification is a part of that violence. Nia talks about that — it’s an uprooting of the community. Another person in [that] panel speaks to how it’s like recolonization. Like, “Come on in there again, rip you out, rename it, destruct everything that was there before. These neighborhoods and the history of that just get swept away and becomes some whitewashed version of it. There’s all these traumas, even when we’ve been able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and reach enormous heights despite everything that’s been set up for us to fail — folks get jealous and come in.
I think the horrors of place play such an important part in this film. Both in terms of the generational traumas in the foundation of Cabrini Green, but also how Candyman — this metaphorical figure of the violence bred there — can literally go anywhere. It reminded me of growing up Black in a Midwest city with white people fearing entering my neighbor — rolling up windows and stuff. I had felt like my fear of their neighborhoods was more valid. Those were really uneasy places to be as a Black person.
It’s, any moment is the hood gonna jump out, or are folks gonna turn on you and become the white folks that we fear. Yes, these are the tropes. Those are ideas that have been put upon us as a way of justifying white flight, as a way of justifying why we need to keep “ours” all in this little corner and have it guarded and gated and you folks can’t come in here. It’s the fear of the Black man. The fear of the Black community. All those things get neatly discussed and placed out for everyone to see in this movie. And because horror is a genre that a lot of folks who aren’t gonna sit down and read [The 1619 Project] might watch, more people are going to see it. It’s a tricky and marvelous and wonderful thing in that it’s able to have this sort of impact and tell and educate because this is reaching audiences that wouldn’t necessarily see it.
I think one of the most compelling things about the shift between the original film and DaCosta’s is the shift in perspective. The first film felt a little bit like an old-school white reporter covering Black crime in who it centered and how it talked about what was happening. But DaCosta’s vision feels distinctively different. The lens of this story is indisputably empathetic.
It matters who’s telling the story, whether it’s coming from the white gaze — something I am extremely familiar with. I mean, how could we not be, you know? From knowing what’s beautiful — that straight hair is prettier than kinky, that dark is inferior to white. All of that we don’t get to escape. So for sure, it matters who tells the story, as Lin-Manuel [Miranda] talks about. We get to reclaim it and correct the point of view and tell the whole authentic truth from the people who have been victimized. Who is better equipped to tell that story?
My question to that is, what it was like being able to work this time around with a team of so many Black creatives who got to expound and reframe not only a horror icon but a whole conversation about the way Black people are allowed to exist on-screen and in real life?
Satisfying, in a word. To be in this canonized film, to be part of the story that gets to set the record straight, it’s just what I want my work to stand for. It’s an educational moment for our children in our community and everyone in America and the world to see. It’s so powerful and important who tells the story because Bernard Rose couldn’t even tell that story, right? Because he doesn’t have that experience. I think they wanted, to some extent, to give Candyman a rationale or reasoning in the ’92 film. That, you know, this was unrequited love, but it didn’t have the impact from the victim’s point of view until now.
Speaking to working on the 1992 film, I’m curious because there is such a change in who the narrative’s creative leadership is, how that manifested on set, particularly when it comes to the hair and makeup department.
Well, I had the really good fortune on the 1992 version to have lots of marvelous Black people working behind the scenes, particularly in hair and makeup. So I felt taken care of then as I did now. On that film, that makeup artist was at the beginning of her career. She literally came from her salon. That was her first industry job, and she went on to work with the special effects people creating little hair strands so that I could literally pull my hair out. And it was similar working in Chicago with the team for this new version. But certainly in my career, through the makeup and hair department, I’ve seen the shift and changes and all of the ways that shows up in hair and makeup. In the early days of Soul Food, I was doing my own hair because the folks in Canada, in that makeup department, didn’t know how to how to deal with locs or even really a nice press and curl. It took us several seasons to get the right hair and makeup department, so much so that they had to fly on people from L.A. — finally — to get it right.
Is that change playing out in your role opportunities as well?
Even in my latest work on The L Word [Generation Q]. I was always like the best friend, the funky little neighbor, you know. But to be the one that’s like, “Oh, have you heard about Pippa [Pascal]?” This is the one that everybody’s waiting for. Literally the pretty girl. Those were not the kinds of roles that I was getting from even Black producers and creatives. You had to look more like Halle Berry or have straight hair or a different kind of hair than I was rockin. So, you know, you stay in it long enough and you get to be the pretty girl, too. (Laughs.)
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