‘The suffering black male body and the threatened white female body’: ambiguous bodies in Candyman

‘The suffering black male body and the threatened white female body’: ambiguous bodies in Candyman

The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies
Issue 9, February 2011

Lucy Fife Donaldson
University of Reading

Race is not a subject often directly encountered in the horror film, despite the highly charged conflict of black and white constituting a central oppositionary structure in American culture and in its cinema. That this conflict is dramatised in specifically physical terms, as in the threat of miscegenation that permeates the dramatic chase scenes of D. W. Griffith’s films, resonates with the emphasis on the body’s importance for horror’s excesses, so that opposition of black and white bears a suggestive relationship to the poles of monster and victim. Linda Williams, writing on race and melodrama, suggests that there are two key icons which articulate the moral dilemma of race for America: ‘the suffering black male body and the threatened white female body’. Williams’ articulation of these embodiments as entwined, presents a correspondence between aspects of black and white experience (as well as between male and female) which destabilises the more common impulse to see race as opposed, polarised as the language around black and white suggests.

Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992) marks the introduction of an African-American monster to the horror mainstream. As well as combining a threatening physical presence and gruesome method of attack, Candyman (Tony Todd) seemingly offers an embodiment of divided racial stereotypes based on fears of miscegenation through his attention to the film’s blonde heroine Helen (Virginia Madsen). Elspeth Kydd maintains that ‘Candyman takes the fear of miscegenation to an extended monstrous form when the black male body becomes the grotesque site for the eruption of these racial/sexual fears and the white woman’s body the site where these fears are played out’. Although Kydd suggests that ambiguity is created in the film’s treatment of racial stereotyping, ‘the excess of these representations point to both the contradictions and the attractions that allow these stereotypes to perpetuate’, the general tenor of her argument is to see the film as perpetuating the usual oppositions of race and gender. I would like to suggest that the apparent duality of gender, race and character types in the film are challenged by much more complex strategies of embodiment and representation. In particular, the film places emphasis on the connectedness of Candyman and Helen, of monster and victim, who are both ambiguously embodied, becoming more like doubles than clearly defined binary figures. Exploring the roles of monster and victim as experienced through the body points to the way physicality is being used and presented, particularly through performance, to offer further layers of complexity that undermine straightforward binaries of black/white or male/female. From this basis, the article will consider how the relationship between violence and the body affects the presentation of horror’s central roles of victim and monster.

Prefacing his discussion of the embodiment of whiteness, Richard Dyer observes that ‘to represent people is to represent bodies’. Through attention to the physical—the details of the body in movement and expression, as well as its placement within the visual style of the film—I intend to explore how the seemingly fixed roles of monster and victim are in fact more fluid than first apparent, and that these can co-exist in the same body. Candyman’s physicality and the way it is presented foregrounds the oscillations between violence and suffering, the relationship between the body and the violence inflicted on and by it, ambiguities which are also found  in Helen’s development, thus  enhancing the film’s striking preoccupation with the shifting parallels between monster and victim.

Candyman is centred on the investigations of two research students writing a joint thesis on urban legends: Helen, who is white, and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons), who is a light skinned African–American or possibly of mixed race. Helen is introduced to the Candyman legend by a white middle-class undergraduate at the University of Chicago, who places him in a suburban setting killing white middle-class teenagers who invoke his presence in the mirror, and then by a couple of African-American cleaners at the university who claim he killed Ruthie-Jean, another African-American woman, in the projects. The tonal and generic contrasts between the stories, as well as the three told later in the film, are central to building ambiguity about the monster before we see him. They also efficiently dramatise a divide between race and class that pervades the film, setting up a striking play of visibility/invisibility between white and black communities as well as increasing the sense of anxiety and intrusion when they cross. Making such a point, however does not deny that the film employs an oppositional structure and certain types within certain social contexts that go with it: smug white male academics; aggressive black males in gangs; there are no white inhabitants of Cabrini Green, just as there are no black inhabitants of Helen’s condominium…

Read the entire article here.

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