In this week’s episode of Hollywood Remixed, The Hollywood Reporter‘s podcast about inclusion and representation in entertainment, host Rebecca Sun (senior editor of diversity and inclusion) explores the history and tropes pertaining to Black representation in horror.
Candyman star Yahya Abdul-Mateen II joins the show to discuss how the franchise’s first all-Black creative team updated the horror classic to tell stories about how American society makes monsters of Black men. “By having Black creatives at the top, it allows us to tell a story where the viewer has the option or inclination to view Candyman with an empathetic perspective,” he says. “By having the [audience] proxy be in the form of a young Black man, we get to see the story of how young Black men in America have become unwilling martyrs.”
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This weekend’s box office is marked by an impressive pandemic performance with MGM/Universal’s Candyman and the holding power of 20th Century/Disney’s Free Guy. Candyman has earned $22.37 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend at 3,569 theaters, surpassing expectations despite the continuing surge of the delta variant and yet another tropical storm, […]Candyman has earned $22.37 million at the domestic box office in its opening weekend at 3,569 theaters, surpassing expectations despite the continuing surge of the delta variant and yet another tropical storm, Ida, affecting East Coast moviegoing.
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Abdul-Mateen, who studied architecture at UC Berkeley and worked as a city planner before becoming an actor, also spoke at length about the filmmakers’ decision to set their Candyman spiritual sequel in a gentrified Cabrini-Green. “The act of gentrification is also an act of systemic violence that’s about displacement of an entire people,” he explains. “Whenever you see displacement like that in gentrification, there’s also a story of misplaced resources, of a missed opportunity to allocate resources properly to families and communities that need resources in order to thrive. A lot of times, cities wait until neighborhoods are affected by blight and it’s too late, and use that as an excuse to go in and tear down, and they call it revitalization.”
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Candyman — which is a reboot of the 1992 movie of the same name — netted over $22 million in its initial domestic weekend "I think that's what's really beautiful about our re-imagining of this story," star Teyonah Parris recently told PEOPLE. "... There's empathy. I think you leave our Candyman feeling more empathy and humanizing the character and asking questions." Speaking with The New York Times for an interview published on Monday, DaCosta chatted about the pressure surrounding the highly-anticipated project.
THR contributor Richard Newby also joins the episode to trace the history of Black representation in horror, starting with Duane Jones’ incidental star turn in George A. Romero’s 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead and drawing parallels to Jordan Peele’s Oscar-nominated Get Out in the present day (spoiler warning for the ending of those two films). Newby and Sun also discuss the exploitation of “trauma porn” in some entries in the genre, the (minimal) role of Black women in horror and the subconscious reasonings behind the well-worn trope, “the Black guy dies first.”
“If Black people are supposedly so strong and so capable, then having a killer kill them off first means, ‘This bad guy is really tough,'” Newby explains. “But also, any white people that survive them are in some ways superior. And so we see that so many times with the white Final Girl: ‘Well, if this killer could kill a Black guy and the white Final Girl survives, then here’s a tip of the hat to whiteness.'”
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Catch up on all the episodes of Hollywood Remixed, including last week’s season two premiere with CODA star Marlee Matlin, and subscribe to the show on the podcast platform of your choice to be alerted to new episodes. Next week, we’ll discuss Asian masculinity and the martial arts trope with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu.
Episode 2×2: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – “Horror Noire”
Intro music: Jaunty, upbeat chords interspersed with the sound of a DJ scratching a record back and forth on a turntable. A voice faintly hollers in the background: “Hollywood Remixed!”
Rebecca Sun: Welcome to Hollywood Remixed, a topical podcast about inclusion and representation in entertainment. I’m Rebecca Sun, senior editor of diversity and inclusion at The Hollywood Reporter.
Here at Hollywood Remixed, each episode is dedicated to a single theme — a trope or an identity that has been underrepresented or misrepresented in mainstream culture. This week is all about Horror Noire – a.k.a. the history and tropes pertaining to Black representation in the horror genre – and our special guest is Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, star of the new Candyman that comes out in theaters on Aug. 27. Now, I’m going to try my best not to say the name of that movie more than five times in a row, and you can definitely believe, I am not recording this in front of a mirror.
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Since I am a huge wimp about horror, I am exceedingly grateful to welcome as our subject matter expert this week, THR contributor Richard Newby. Newby is one of the most brilliant cultural critics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. He knows more about all manner of screen art – like, in any genre – than most people I know, but he has a particular affinity for horror. In fact, earlier this year he wrote a book of horror short stories, We Make Monsters Here, all rooted in the 21st century American experience. All of this is to say that Richard Newby is the perfect guest for this episode, and I’m delighted to welcome him to Hollywood Remixed.
Newby, it’s truly a dream come true for you to join us on today’s episode. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Richard Newby: Thank you for having me.
Sun: Literally hand-holding me through this walk through horror [laughs]. But it’s important: If I’m going to take a deep dive into the horror genre, I can think of nothing more worthwhile than specifically looking at horror through the lens of the Black perspective. So as we try to piece together a timeline of sorts of the highlights — or lowlights, as the case may be — of this genre, tell me a little bit about one of the earlier films that belongs in this canon.
Newby: I think the earliest film that really strikes me as navigating the Black experience in America through the horror genre is George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. It’s an all-time classic horror film – one of the best of all-time, in my opinion. It’s a really fascinating entry because Romero didn’t intend it to be this conversation of race in America. The lead actor, Duane Jones, who plays Ben, was cast because it was a very low-budget production, an independent production, and he was a local actor and Romero thought he was the best guy for the job. But because he is a Black man, it very much influences what we see in that story, specifically the fact that you have him in a house, trapped with other white people.
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There’s a white girl named Barbara. There’s a younger white couple, Tom and Judy, and then there’s a family, the Coopers, and Ben is the only Black guy in the house. He has all the survival skills that they need to hold out this wave of zombies, so he basically writes the skill book on zombie survivalism. It’s really interesting to see the tensions that brew in that house. I personally see that house as being a microcosm of America, where you have Ben basically building up this house and fortifying it and putting all the work in. And then there’s an older white man, Mr. Cooper, who wants to be in charge. He wants to be the leader, essentially take credit for all the work that Ben has done to build up this place and maintain their survival. And so it becomes this battle of wills between the two. I think it’s a really interesting movie and it’s one that Jordan Peele has cited often as being an inspiration to Get Out. I also think that when you get to that ending – I assume I can spoil it; it’s pretty old.
Sun: Yeah, we’ll give everybody a spoiler warning right now: Night of the Living Dead came out in 1968 [laughs], so I think that the statute of limitations is expired. But yes, spoiler warning, if you do want to go into this movie fresh, skip over the next couple of minutes.
Newby: So Ben is the only one in the house who survives, which at the end seems pretty monumental, but at the very tail end after he’s the only one left, a group of rednecks who are dispatching the zombies end up shooting him, mistaking him for a zombie, and they throw his body on this pyre that they’ve built. And the final words are, “Another one for the fire.” To me, that always hit really hard in terms of thinking about the way that white people had treated black bodies, from hangings to burnings. I think it’s very much a metaphor for that kind of Black experience. If you listen to the extras on the Criterion Collection disk of the film, Duane Jones talks a lot about his experience on Night of the Living Dead and how even though Romero didn’t necessarily see it as a story about race, for him that was always in the back of his mind. The racist encounters that he had driving to and from set every day definitely influenced his perspective of what it was like to be this Black man hunted by zombies and eventually killed by the very people that you’re trying to protect.
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Sun: You went into this film, and the various connections to both the time in which it was made as well as now, back in 2018 for THR. That’s a plug for Newby’s great column, and that was to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Night of the Living Dead. It’s so interesting, this examination of intentionality with race, because in this case, Romero says he just happened to cast Duane Jones. But the film really does add so much resonance when you look at that, particularly with the ending. So to leap forward 50 years and look at Get Out, which as you just mentioned, Jordan Peele has acknowledged the connections to – and we’re going to put another spoiler warning in here for that much more recent film – there was a version of Get Out where Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, meets his fate in a similar fashion to what happens to Ben in Night of the Living Dead, but in the ultimate theatrical cut, Peele changed that ending.
I’m curious about what you make of why – whether or not that has to do with the consciousness of the filmmaker knowing what that means, and what that means to a particular audience; what audience it’s for; as well as the additional factor of the difference between the two films being the time in which they came out. Again, let’s set the scene: Night of the Living Dead, 1968. This is, one would say, during the heat of the civil rights movement. When Get Out came out, this was basically the dawn of the Trump era. We had come out of what many assumed was a post-racial moment with President Obama, and basically discovering the seedy underbelly of white supremacy in the United States. Uh, that was a lot of questions, but what do you make of Get Out‘s ending in light of all of this context?
Newby: I think the fact that Chris survives is really important, especially for Black audiences, because we see so many Black people being shot and killed on the news all the time. So this is kind of a reversal of that, a refreshing reversal, where we finally have a hero who gets to make it through without the consequences of his life being taken. I was thinking recently, I came back to something Nancy Pelosi had said referring to George Floyd’s death being a sacrifice, which really rubbed me the wrong way at the time and still does. But I think there’s something to this idea that so many white Americans make unwilling and unwitting martyrs out of Black people. And so I think the fact that Chris doesn’t have to become a martyr for his story to be important is really key. I think the fact that you can confront racism and survive it – that’s such a powerful moment for Black audiences. And I think that’s one of the reasons for the success of the film is that it doesn’t leave audiences in a down place. To use the metaphor of the film, it kind of lifts them out of the Sunken Place where Black people have been forcibly situated in and allows them to rise above it.
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Sun: That brings up such an important theme that, as I’ve been educating myself on horror noir, on Black horror, throughout the course of preparing for this episode, I’ve been thinking more and more about who we – not me, I don’t make horror films – who these films are made for and the different grouping of experiences that different audiences are bringing to it. For non-Black audiences and particularly white audiences, there is a collective sense of getting your vicarious thrills through watching a horror film. It’s so alien to your own experience. Let’s say Chris dies at the end of Get Out. You kind of come away like, “Geez, wow, that was scary. Glad that’s not real life.” Whereas if you look at the shared and collective experience for Black Americans in this country, it’s a very different story. I think what has been actually experienced in real life, a real and ongoing racial trauma, is in some ways more terrifying.
Newby: I think that’s one of the reasons why Black people love horror so much. We kind of gravitate towards the genre because we’ve experienced so much horror in our daily lives. Just getting in the car and going for a drive is a potentially terrifying experience, and we’ve seen so much of that on the news and from recorded videos. So what Jordan Peele does is really important in terms of making this a film for Black audiences, whereas I think that some other films that have come after it and kind of taken advantage of his name and the success of Get Out have been about torturing Black people for the pleasure or validation of white people so that they can see, “Oh, we know that this is inherently racist. We see Black people in chains and getting whipped, and we know that that’s racist, so we know at least we’re not like that.”
It simplifies racism because racism, as we know, is so much bigger than that. It’s lasted so much longer than slavery. To suggest – as the film Antebellum did – that people in chains and Black women getting raped and beaten is the extent of racism, but it’s so much more than that. It is the microaggressions that we see so much of in Get Out. And the other interesting thing is that when you look at the family and the people that come to the auction in Get Out, I don’t think any of those people would think of themselves as racist. And that is what’s really illuminating. Whereas with some of these other projects that focus on the torture of Black people, it’s very clear that this is an inherent racism. And so it allows white people to separate themselves from that without also looking inwards and realizing their own racial issues that happen every day without them having whips and chains and such.
Sun: That’s such a good point. And I think you’re right. You said something when we were chatting through this episode last week about the fact that with Get Out and with filmmakers like Jordan Peele, the message of the film isn’t just “Racism bad, slavery bad.” He’s making a very precise point about the commodification, the envy and the desire to control Black bodies, often veiled in this – I don’t know if the word is passive aggressive, but certainly the word is microaggressive: the “Do you work out?,” “I would have voted for Obama three times,” “You must be an athlete.” It’s like, “What, is that bad? I’m just complimenting you.” But the reduction to objectification and commodification again is what I would imagine, for the viewer that Peele is making this film for, that’s what strikes this tone of creepiness and dread, more so than the more overt “I’m tied up in the basement and there’s a guy with a chainsaw coming after me.”
Peele: It’s this idea of white people being jealous of Black bodies and at the same time trying to invalidate them that I think Peele handles in a really interesting way that I think is something that we hadn’t seen before in Black horror. So despite the fact that Black horror has existed for decades and preceded Peele, I think that what Peele does is really home in on the fact that there is a kind of cultural appropriation or desire for cultural appropriation that is very much tied to racism and American history that I don’t think is always addressed, particularly in terms of when Black people appear in horror.
Sun: Absolutely. I want to highlight one more thing you said about Get Out before moving to a different theme: the complicity of other participants. You mentioned this when we spoke last week, and I read a lot of fascinating analysis of the presence of the Asian man during the auction, participating in this systemic ritual, and therefore perpetuating it and despite being the only non-white person at the auction, benefiting from that sort of perceived proximity to whiteness. So again, every choice in that film is so deliberate.
The other thing that I wanted to highlight based on what you said is the real horror of Get Out. Similar to when I — well, not watched Night of the Living Dead, but read your essay about Night of the Living Dead, to see the parallels between the ultimate final threat that faces both Ben and Chris, with different outcomes. It’s almost fourth-wall breaking. Because whether Ben was fending off zombies or Chris was fending off this crazy white family that was trying to hijack his soul, at the end, the encounter with this outside real world and this idea that you could be killed at any moment, either by the official law enforcement or by sort of these self-described vigilantes who are out hunting monsters, it breaks the fourth wall. To me, that’s the remarkable alchemy of Get Out. By that point, ironically, you’ve been seeing the world through — you’ve been in Chris’s body, taking this ride. And I don’t think there’s a single audience member who doesn’t get the most scared when those lights pull up on him. It kind of makes it really undeniable that this is a horror that cannot be escaped.
Newby: I remember seeing that in theaters and my palms were just sweating at that moment when you saw those lights, because just from experience, you think that you know how that story is going to go and how it’s going to end. And so he’s been through all of this and then the reality of our world comes crashing in again.
Sun: And I think for those of us who do not have a track record of potentially being killed during traffic stops and that sort of thing, it allows us to kind of experience that real threat. And now this pivots to where I wanted to go with this, which is Jordan Peele’s decision not to traumatize his intended audience through the story raises what I want to talk about. You’ve already alluded to it when you brought up Antebellum, which was the film that came out I think it was last year, this idea of trauma porn and what the difference is. Because there was another series that is considered Black horror that came out earlier this year, Them, which was on Amazon. Again, something I will never watch for many reasons – that’s my disclaimer there – but I did read a number of really excellent and smart commentaries about the series, one of which is by our very own cultural critic Lovia Gyarke, about whom does this service? I think that’s really important as we’re trying to look at not just Black horror specifically, but with any genres, particularly in this moment where I think studios are now hip to this idea that putting people of color on screen is good PR, you can kind of virtue signal that way, but how you’re deploying them, what are the questions that people should be asking when they approach a piece of work?
Newby: I think that horror at its best should push boundaries and sometimes be uncomfortable, but at the same time, you don’t want horror that feels like it’s punching down and adding more trauma to people who have already had traumatic experiences. I haven’t watched Them, but I did read the pieces and I did see Antebellum, but the thing that struck me about those films for me is that they lack empathy. There’s no connection to the Black people other than the fact that we get to see them suffer. And we know that suffering is bad and torture is shocking, but they’re not really seen as human beings, so it doesn’t add to the conversation of the horrors of race. It just kind of beats you over the head with images of violence that we’ve seen far too often.
Going back to what I said earlier, I don’t think that things like that are for Black audiences. I think it’s for white audiences who can say, “Well, we’re not as bad as this. So if this is what racism is, then I can’t be racist.” It gives them a way out. I also think when you don’t have Black filmmakers and Black screenwriters at the helm, I think that’s immediately apparent as well. And so then, to go back to an earlier point, it becomes a commodification: Here are Black people onscreen and we’ve packaged it with horror, but the message of what it’s about doesn’t really matter. We’re just putting Black people and some things that we know about horror up on a screen and, just experience it as you will, but you’re not really taking anything from it.
I mentioned this in our earlier conversation, but I always go back to Roger Ebert’s quote about movies being an empathy machine, which is interesting in itself because Roger Ebert was not the biggest horror fan. But I think horror at its best does create empathy. It does allow you to have someone else’s perspective and not just be like, “I feel bad for them because this is a scary situation,” but to actually feel what they feel as human beings, to understand that fear and the history of that fear. I think that that’s really important: to understand the context of the horror. I think Antebellum, for example, is horror without context. It’s the bare minimum of “slavery happened in America and it’s bad and white people did it,” but there’s no interrogation of the systems that allowed that to happen. The systems that exist today that are their own form of slavery, from voter suppression to our prison systems. There’s none of that. It’s completely uninterested in modern-day America. I always think that horror at its best should be teaching us something new and should be reflecting the current world that we live in, ultimately to scare us but also hopefully make us better as a society.
Sun: It’s interesting that both of those projects that we just talked about, Antebellum and Them, are period pieces. And I think you’re right. Them is set I think in the 20th century during the white flight to the suburbs, and it kind of allows audience members, as well as perhaps the honchos at the very top who greenlit, a bit of distance where they can sort of absolve themselves and say, “Wow, can you believe things were that bad? You know, not even that long ago.”
You made an interesting point, again, in our conversation last week, that I do think bears mentioning. Since we are talking about authorship, acknowledging that at least in the case of Them, the creator is Black, Little Marvin; it’s produced by Lena Waithe. And again, acknowledgement that neither you nor I have seen Them, but I think you made a really interesting point about why sometimes you will see a creative of color or a specifically a Black creator who kind of goes there and make something like what we saw there. I’m not asking you to get into Little Marvin’s head, no pun intended, but generally speaking, why is it that sometimes you do see something that the majority of the audience that shares that background is like, “This is kind of messed up,” but this is coming from somebody in the family. What’s up with that?
Newby: Sometimes when Black creators make those choices, it comes from a desire to fit into white spaces. We all know that Hollywood is a particularly difficult climate for people of color to rise to the top in. So sometimes in cases like Them, I think that what we’re seeing is a desire to fit in and give white producers and white audiences what they want at the sacrifice of what Black audiences want. In some ways it seems like a betrayal of self. I do think that there is this desire to put Black people in things and in cinematic situations that are geared towards white metrics of success.
Sun: That’s such a good point. I’m going to invoke another thing – I keep talking about this conversation we had last week, and people might feel like, “Why didn’t you just air that?” Well, guys, because it was 75 minutes. It was 75 minutes of a rich, educational, private conversation with Richard Newby. And if you want to hear more of his wit and brilliance, you should just become his friend. But I remember when you told me about the Ebert quote, you made a distinction between empathy and sympathy, which I think is really enlightening in light of this tendency where if you see Black people in horror, they are sort of objectified in some way or deployed in some way where you might feel sorry for them, but you don’t empathize with them. I’m wondering if that difference is related to one of the most common tropes when we think of horror in general, which has been lampshaded in postmodern horror films: The Black guy dies first. Why do you think that’s come to be? Why is that a trope?
Newby: I think in some cases it’s because the Black character seems disposable. And from my research of looking through so many films of horror history, that’s become such a slasher movie trope, there are many times where the Black guy doesn’t die first, but he makes so little an impression that it kind of feels like he does. Like he’s not a character, he’s “the Black guy.” And also, to go back to the commentary of Get Out, if Black people are supposedly so strong and so capable, then killing them off, having a killer kill them off first means, “Oh, this bad guy is really tough,” but also any white people that survive them are in some ways superior. And so we see that so many times with the white Final Girl: “Well, if this killer could kill a Black guy and the white Final Girl survives, then here’s a tip of the hat to whiteness.” Interestingly enough, Night of the Living Dead did not go that route. Even though we’re introduced to Barbara first and we expect her to be the survivor in the end, before the mob comes. It’s set what should have been a precedent, but it didn’t happen.
So then, Black people just kind of became these disposable bodies, a token figure. And I think that that’s still something that we are trying to work out in Hollywood. I don’t always think that it’s an intentional act of racism, but I think that it’s embedded in the racism of our culture. I want to point to a recent film, without getting into spoilers, A Quiet Place Part II, which I think is a great film, but I also think, going back to the conversation about Black people being killed first and for really no reason, I think that’s kind of an interesting example. And I think that we’re at an interesting place where filmmakers do want to be more inclusive in their casting, and so they cast very talented Black actors to deliver a monologue that really adds to the gravitas of the film. And then when they’re killed off, it kind of adds this “oh s***” moment. “They killed off the big actor,” but at the same time, because they’re Black, you can’t fully separate that from the history of Black people being treated as disposable characters.
Sun: It’s a little bit of a Catch-22. You want to be present, you want to be included in the anticipated tentpole film, but on the other hand, how you’re being deployed, when will you actually be the driver of the story or the protagonist?
Before we get to discussion of Candyman, I wanted to ask you one more question in general, which is, what is the role historically of Black women in the horror genre? A lot of the films that we’ve mentioned so far revolve around Black men as protagonists, or just the first victim or whatever, but historically, how have Black women fared in this genre?
Newby: Yeah, Black women have not fared well at all. If they’re even a presence, a lot of times, they just ended up being support for the white character. In Horror Noire the documentary, Rachel True brings this up several times and talks about her experience in several films just kind of being the Black support. I think that in the Blaxploitation films of the ’70s, you got to see a little more of Black women being central heroic figures. The genre didn’t crossover into horror too often, but there are films like Sugar Hill, which is kind of a knockoff on Foxy Brown, in which this woman, Sugar Hill, her boyfriend is killed by this white mob and she goes to this voodoo lord, Baron Samedi, and has this army of zombies that she uses to take down the mob. So that’s a really interesting early example.
And then later in the ’90s, you have Jada Pinkett Smith in Demon Knight, which is a movie based on the Tales from the Crypt series. She is one of the only Black final girls in film history. I’m really partial to that film because it’s not a movie about race. It’s just, “here is a Black character and she’s just doing her thing, being a b***** and living her life.” And I feel like we need to see a lot more of that, just Black people allowed to have the kind of fun roles that white people have gotten so often. It’s interesting because that movie was not well-received by critics. It’s become something of a cult favorite, and horror fans are rediscovering it thanks to a Blu-ray release. But I also think that that’s kind of a key aspect as well, is that sometimes when we do have films with Black people who get to work outside the confinements that we’re kind of used to, especially Black women, I don’t think that they’re always well-received critically. And part of that is because so much of criticism comes down to white male voices. And I think that it kind of shuts out a lot of potentially interesting conversations and projects that could come from those.
Sun: And I think it should be noted, as you had pointed out to me, that Tales from the Crypt was directed by a Black director, Ernest Dickerson. I wanted to bring up one more filmmaker that will serve as a good segue into talking about Candyman. I want to talk about Kasi Lemmons the director and Kasi Lemmons the actress. I think that we should in this conversation give a shout out to Eve’s Bayou. It’s not traditionally a horror movie as you described to me, and she’s also in Candyman, and we can use that to kind of go into the original Candyman and your thoughts on that.
Newby: Eve’s Bayou is another interesting one that is centric on Black women. It’s several generations of Black women. Like you said, it’s not strictly horror, it’s more horror-adjacent, there’s some supernatural aspects mixed within drama, but I feel like it’s a really important film in terms of presenting the power of Black women and how they hold families together. It’s very much in the spirit of Toni Morrison – also not really thought of as a horror writer, but I think that she’s very much horror-adjacent. Kasi Lemmons has done some really interesting things; she also did The Caveman’s Valentine, which is another horror-adjacent project with Samuel L. Jackson, and she is also one of the supporting cast members of Candyman, and her role in that is really interesting, which we can talk about too.
Sun: Let’s talk about Candyman, since, you know, we’ve gathered today to commemorate the upcoming release of the new Candyman, the revival. Tell me a little bit about your personal relationship to the original film, but also where you think it sits in the hearts of Black horror fans.
Newby: I grew up knowing about Candyman long before I ever saw the movie. It was kind of a Black kids’ urban legend. When I was in elementary school, all the Black kids would go into the bathroom and say “Candyman” five times into the mirror. So we kind of felt this ownership over the character because he was Black. That is really interesting when it comes to the movie because in the movie, most of Candyman’s victims are Black people who are living in the Cabrini-Green.
Sun: Which is a housing project, right?
Newby: Yeah. Bernard Rose’s film, which is based on Clive Barker’s short story The Forbidden, relocates that story from England to America. In the short story, Candyman is not Black at all. He’s just kind of like a supernatural blue-lipped ghoul, but centering it in America and putting it in Chicago, it automatically becomes about race. I recently tackled this in the latest issue of Fangoria magazine, I questioned, whose nightmare is Candyman? Is it something to terrify Black people or white people? I think the fact that most of the victims in the movie are Black, from my own perspective I think in some ways it can be looked at as a metaphor for the fatalism of living in the projects, this feeling that you are trapped and can’t get out. As some of the characters say in the film, “You’re better off dead than encountering Candyman.” So I think it’s this idea that you might be better off dead. You have no prospects outside of the Cabrini-Green.
On the other hand, when you look at Helen Lyle, Virginia Madsen’s character in the film, she is a tourist in Black spaces. She is an academic who’s studying urban legends, and she goes to the Cabrini-Green to work on a dissertation about Candyman. And I think that her role is particularly interesting because she is essentially trying to commodify Black stories into academia geared towards white people. I think that there is a really interesting element in the film, just to get into this idea of Black spaces and white spaces, in which Helen finds out that the apartment that she lives in was part of the same building project that built the Cabrini-Green. The only difference is the price, the coating of white paint and the plaster.
So I think that for white people, the nightmare of Candyman becomes this idea that there’s not so much of a gap between us. And I feel like that’s a theme that the film really drives home particularly in the end with Helen becoming her own kind of urban legend. So I think the use of the mirror in that film to say “Candyman” is more than just a riff on “Bloody Mary.” It’s also a reflection on our society for both Black people and white people to think about what this urban legend means and how it impacts or speaks to the narratives that we tell about ourselves, and narratives that we tell about people who we think are on the other side.
Sun: I think it’ll be interesting to see with this new Candyman how the answer to those questions and the treatment of these themes differs now that the film is in the hands of a Black woman, Nia DaCosta, directing it, as well as this generation of filmmakers and a growing awareness that not every audience member is white, which I think was sort of the assumption for most of Hollywood. What are you looking forward to seeing with this new treatment of Candyman?
Newby: I’m really excited for this new version. One of the things that has really stuck out to me, and I’ve rewatched it several times, is the shadow-puppet trailer that was released last year where you see different Black people over centuries being killed in brutal ways and becoming the new interpretation of Candyman. And the line in the recent trailer that really stuck out to me, Colman Domingo’s character says, “Candyman isn’t a ‘he,’ it’s the whole damn hive.” I like this idea that essentially says Candyman could be any of us. We could all be seen as monsters. We can all be made into martyrs. Going back to Nancy Pelosi’s reference to Black people being sacrificed. So this idea of the sacrifice then becoming the monster, and how that’s happened time and time again is really interesting to me. And I think that Nia DaCosta as a filmmaker has a really great handle on what legacy means and how that impacts families. Her film Little Woods is a great example of that. Brilliant filmmaker, so I’m really excited to see what she brings to the Candyman franchise and just building out the mythology of it.
Sun: Other than the new Candyman, are there one or two entries in the Black horror genre that you would recommend for our courageous viewers who are curious to really diving in and experiencing for themselves what the epitome of this genre can be?
Newby: Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs is a great example of that. It’s about a young Black boy living in the projects who is dealing with gentrification. This well-to-do white couple moves into the neighborhood, raises the rent of everyone’s property. He hears that they have all of this money stashed away, so he and a friend break into the house and discover that they’re also hiding a sinister secret. Wes Craven said that he felt that that house was America in a microcosm. And so I think that that is a really interesting film. It’s a little more comedic than, than some of the other Black horror examples, but I definitely think that you can see the impression that that made on Jordan Peele as well. He’s also set to produce a remake of that. I think that’s a really great film. I think that Wes Craven is one of the white filmmakers who really did push the limits and push the boundaries in terms of exploring race in film when a lot of his contemporaries weren’t interested in that, so that’s definitely a great one to check out.
Sun: My recommendation will not be a horror film because obviously I don’t watch horror films, but in preparing for this episode, I watched the excellent documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which was directed by Xavier Burgin. It originally came out on Shudder; I believe it’s available on Amazon Prime. It’s based on the work of professor Robin R. Means Coleman, who appears in the documentary and was an executive producer alongside Tananarive Due, another professor who literally I think teaches a course on Black horror, right? Is it UCLA?
Sun: And so if you guys want to learn more about the subject – and I do think it’s worthwhile, I find this fascinating, rich, and I feel like I learned a lot about the real-life state and history of our nation just simply through looking at horror movies, which is saying a lot. So thank you so much, Newby, for this enlightening conversation. Again, if you want to learn more, I would suggest: Enroll in Professor Due’s class or read Newby’s work and watch that documentary and just educate yourself. But thank you again for this conversation. I feel like we said “Candyman” way more than five times, so hopefully none of us was standing in front of a mirror during this conversation. [Laughs.]
Newby: Thank you so much for having me on; this was a great conversation.
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Sun: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is an actor whose star has been steadily rising over the last several years. He had a scene-stealing role in his first screen credit, Baz Luhrmann’s disco-age drama The Get Down, a memorable episode of Black Mirror with Anthony Mackie, and he plays the villain Manta in the Aquaman franchise. He won an Emmy last year for his role in HBO’s Watchmen, and the twist regarding his character is so delicious that if you somehow haven’t been spoiled about it already, I’m going to spare you here. Last year he took a turn for the realistic as Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but he’s back to genre in Candyman, in theaters August 27, where he plays the all-grown-up version of Baby Anthony in the much-anticipated revival of the horror classic.
Yahya, thank you so much for joining us today; I really appreciate it. I want to start by asking some questions based on the recent cover story you did for THR. You told my colleague Tatiana Siegel that Candyman is a story that’s historically important, both to you and to Black folklore in general. I’m curious about what was your relationship to the original film or the original film franchise?
Abdul-Mateen: First, thank you for having me. I really, really appreciate the opportunity to be on a podcast. I was a fan of Candyman, more so the character than the film. I thought I knew about the film, but in hindsight, I really didn’t. I knew about the character. I knew about the legend with the coat and the man with the bees and the guy who would show up behind you in the mirror. The iconic imagery from Tony Todd’s performance. I grew up saying “Candyman” in the mirror four times – never really five, because I was afraid to do it, and my siblings as well. But I remember Candyman was a household staple. It was a neighborhood staple, definitely a community bogeyman growing up. Nobody wanted any parts of Candyman. That was the relationship that I grew up with, and it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to join this film that I went back and looked at the movie again and learned that there was so much more to the Candyman mythology than I grew up even knowing.
Sun: Makes sense, the origin story. I’m curious, did you and your friends or your siblings think of Candyman differently than some of the other iconic bogeymen during that time, like in the ’80s when it was like Freddy Krueger or Jason, was Candyman somehow in your minds distinct from the others?
Abdul-Mateen: Well, Candyman was Black, and he also showed up in the projects. We lived in the projects, and even when we didn’t live in the projects, we lived in a place where the projects were still accessible to us. So Candyman felt like he was tangible. It was like, “Man, Candyman shows up in the same places that we live.” And so in terms of representation and watching films where that bogeyman showed up in a world that seemed to be accessible or seemed to be the same as yours, that made the threat all the more real. I remember there was one of them – I think maybe Michael Myers or something like that – he was always in the woods or in the suburbs or something like that. So that didn’t really travel or translate to my real world. But Candyman, all you had to do was go into a bathroom and cut off the lights. It’s interesting because that’s how we used to do it. But even in the film, I don’t think it was necessary to cut off the lights, but somehow those exercises take on a life of its own, even outside of the film, and has done so for so many years.
Sun: Even kids have the proper imagination for theatrics and setting the scene, setting the mood properly for something creepy like that. You were six when the movie came out, so would it be accurate to say that you probably learned about Candyman just through the way it kind of spreads through friends and stuff before you actually saw the movie? Do you remember when you actually watched the film?
Abdul-Mateen: I did watch the film at some point because when I did go back and watch it, I remember I started to see things like, “Oh, I remember this, I remember this, I remember those moments,” but Candyman definitely lived outside of the film. When I was playing the Candyman game – I won’t go as far as to say summoning – but when I was in the mirror talking about some Candyman, I wasn’t thinking about the movie. We weren’t referencing the movie; we were referencing the real Candyman and seeing if he was going to show up. We would do that in the same way as we did Bloody Mary. I have no idea where I got that from. I cannot tell you to this day how I was five or six, seven talking about Bloody Mary. I don’t think I got that from a film either. It was just one of those things that lives on and takes a life of its own. It’s the powerful part of folklore and storytelling.
Sun: Same here. I never watched a single horror movie growing up, and I didn’t know that much about English history, European history, that’s where Bloody Mary comes from. I think she was the queen who got beheaded, uh, the Scottish queen, something like that. I don’t know, again, that’s the power of mythology and folklore. Before I get to the new film, I wanted to ask you, when you mentioned going back and watching the original Candyman as an adult, what were some of the things that stood out to you that didn’t occur to you as a kid?
Abdul-Mateen: Immediately one of the misconceptions that stood out more clearly was that I only remember Candyman as a slasher, as the straight-up bogeyman and going back to watch it as an adult, there’s so many different themes in this film. There’s the themes of gentrification. There’s the theme of experiencing the Black experience from a voyeuristic perspective. Helen comes in as an outsider, she’s sort of intruding and taking pictures and looking at that experience as not necessarily anthropological research, but some could make that argument.
But also that Candyman wasn’t just an evil ghost by choice. Candyman was birthed out of an act of white violence. He was lynched for his decision to love the person who he was in love with. So he was discriminated against, he was targeted, he was murdered, he was murdered in a very violent, horrific, overly aggressive way that was made to make a point, and that action turned him into a monster. So when we sat down to discuss our film, and when I read the script, I saw that this was an opportunity to shed light on that history of Candyman and the horrors of how Candyman came to be. But then also to draw the parallels to the way that young Black men in contemporary times – well, all throughout history actually – have been turned into monsters, so to speak, at the hands of white violence. And so this was an opportunity to tell that story, the horrors of that experience, as well.
Sun: One of the major differences with this new Candyman is this is going to be the first Candyman film that has a Black director and had Black writers on it. How do you think the background of the storytellers has impacted the story, the choice of what story to tell, or how to tell it?
Abdul-Mateen: Our Candyman gives us the opportunity by having Black creatives at the top, at the helm of it. One, I think it’s so important because we’re telling the story specifically when we talk about Anthony, when we talk about Daniel Robitaille (the Candyman), we are telling the story about a traumatic experience, about Black American trauma. And so what this gives us the opportunity to do is to tell it from our perspective, is to take the story and to sort of extrapolate the things that are important to us, that we as a community, as a creative body at least, feel is important to get across.
I don’t think we ever want to tell people what to think. We’re still going to give you all of the horror elements that you know and love from the first film, but by having Black creatives at the top in the form of the writer and the director, it allows us to tell a story where the viewer has the option or has the inclination to view Candyman with an empathetic perspective. We can tell the entire history of Candyman and still allow that to be as horrifying as it is when you only look at him, or when you only remember him, as a villain.
Sun: One of the aspects that fans of the whole Candyman franchise are going to really look forward to is that you will be taking a fuller look at the original Candyman, but you’re also bringing the story forward to literally the new generation, the next generation, and that’s embodied in your character, as well as how Cabrini-Green has changed. You mentioned this earlier: Cabrini-Green looks different than the way the development was in the first movie. Let’s start with the gentrification aspect of it. What do you think that the storytellers were trying to tell about that experience and that reality through the film?
Abdul-Mateen: The act of gentrification is also an act of – I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but it’s a systemic violence, very much so a sort of systemic violence that’s about displacement of an entire people. When I went to Chicago, one of the first things I said was, “Okay, let me go to Cabrini-Green and walk around.” And I didn’t see any Black people. The basketball courts, I saw a huge athletic field, a huge grass field. I saw art: I saw dance classes and performances, you know, community resources. There were no Black people using these community resources. There were no Black families at that soccer practice. Tons of kids, happy families, well-to-do families; there were no Black people playing basketball on those one, two, three, four, maybe six basketball courts. There were no Black people under the huge tent; there was some organization that went there and they invited community members to come and take part in this dance rehearsal or something like that, but it was an event for the community right there in Cabrini-Green. And it was not a representation of the community that Cabrini-Green is known for. So then I said, “Well, what happened to these people?” The act of gentrification, when families become displaced, you create ghosts. You create memories.
There’s a scene in Candyman where Anthony walks through Cabrini-Green, and it’s no longer inhabited at all. It’s just a ghost town. And it caused me to think, Where did all of the families go? There were grandmothers, mothers, babies; it was generations, there were graduations and birthdays and funerals and celebrations and stories and lives and families, and now it’s fenced off and it’s a ghost town. So wherever you see displacement like that in gentrification, there’s also a story of misplaced resources, of a missed opportunity to allocate resources properly to families and communities that need resources in order to thrive. A lot of the times, the cities wait until neighborhoods are affected by blight and wait until it’s too late to add resources, and use that as an excuse to go in and tear down and take out resources, and they call it revitalization. I could go on and on, but that’s a very violent act in and of itself, and a horrific one also.
To go back to Cabrini-Green, to set that story down, I think it was just smart and necessary because we didn’t have to go looking for anywhere else to tell the story. We could go right to Cabrini-Green and stay there and tell the story that’s actually happening all around the country. Actually, I think Cabrini-Green is the perfect case study in the subject matter we’re talking about.
Sun: I’m really thankful that you laid it out that way. I almost wonder if your own background in city planning and architecture has informed your perspective. I think sometimes people look at “oh, we’re cleaning up this area, we’re adding all these things,” and kind of look at it from that uncritical perspective without seeing that the beneficiaries of these resources have changed.
Let’s talk a little bit about your character. Baby Anthony, he’s all grown up, he’s working as a visual artist. We’ve been able to see a little bit from the trailers the type of art he does, but can you share a little bit more about what kind of visual artist Anthony is. I think it’s interesting because sometimes people will lump like artists with gentrifiers, with hipsters, and kind of be like, “These are the people who have come in from the outside,” but Anthony is homegrown. I think his art seems to be somewhat related to what’s going on.
Abdul-Mateen: Anthony is a peculiar character because his art does change in the film. We see that he has a certain amount of success when he is, um…
Sun: You’re trying not to spoil, right?
Abdul-Mateen: I’m trying not to spoil, but I’m also – see, Anthony is from Cabrini-Green. Anthony doesn’t know that he’s from Cabrini-Green. So Anthony’s art, it looks a certain way. It’s still good. Anthony’s art has a certain aesthetic, has a certain depth when he doesn’t know where he’s from, and the closer Anthony gets back to where he’s actually from, then his art comes alive in a certain way, and he’s painting with more vigor and he’s putting his body and his sweat into the work. And the work is at a much larger scale. And he’s using a different medium. Anthony, interestingly enough, he’s a bit of an outsider as well when he’s going to Cabrini-Green, and he also sort of has that very much a voyeuristic perspective as well, so I can’t even say that Anthony is completely innocent.
But Anthony does go – I’m trying not to spoil it – but Anthony does go down this path of finding himself that brings him closer to the artist that I believe he knows lives inside of him. One of the tragedies of the story is that as he begins to find himself, certain things happen in the story that actually pulls him away from that great potential that he finds. As he does get closer and closer to home, fate has other ideas for him. It’s a little bit difficult to talk about without going directly into spoilers, but his art is definitely affected I believe in a positive way by his trajectory.
Sun: I feel like you need to go on a whole separate press tour after everybody has had a chance to see the movie to analyze and dissect, because I can sort of see the potential of what you’re seeing. But again, without having seen the film, like this is going to be something that film scholars are going to probably dine on for years, analyzing the evolving art of Anthony as his discoveries evolve.
Well, it’s not spoilery to say that after all of the various trailers and posters and everything have come out, people have obviously been drawing connections between Anthony and Candyman as a character. But I think that it’s safe to say that it seems a little bit like Anthony is the Helen of the movie as well, in terms of the audience proxy, right? The person that represents the audience, going in and learning about the mythology. And again, I’m not asking you to go into spoilers, but what do you think is the significance now of that protagonist, that audience proxy, now being a Black man instead of a white woman being the person escorting you?
Abdul-Mateen: It’s no secret to anyone that Anthony, at some point in the film, has a part in creating the drama. He undergoes a traumatic experience in the film, and it’s not by his choice. And so I think that by having that proxy be in the form of a young Black man, then we see how the history of the violence of this place, how that lands in Anthony’s lap. So he even just by association inherits that violence that was initially acted upon maybe a hundred years ago, and we also get to see the story of how young Black men in America have become unwilling martyrs. Anthony finds himself in a position where – I guess I’m going down spoiler lane again [laughs], I love talking about the film – it allows us to I think relax into the story and to take that journey through the Black experience, and see what the implications are of having that sort of trauma be inflicted upon the Black body. And what does that look like?
Sun: In the first half of this podcast episode, I did a separate interview kind of going through the history of Black storytelling in horror, and it’s very interesting to be able to see the shifts, when you talk about the experiences of Black people and characters shifting from that outsider perspective where you need whiteness as your entry point to actually being able to convey and communicate and share these stories directly.
So looking at your whole career so far, Candyman, although that’s your first straight-up horror film, you’ve done a lot of work that has speculative or a fantastical element, like Watchmen, Black Mirror, Aquaman. I’m just curious if you feel any particular affinity for genre. Are you personally a fan of those things as a viewer? Or is it more as a performer?
Abdul-Mateen: I think my current résumé really reflects my appetite and opportunities. I think that most of those that you named were not necessarily fantastical just for the sake of being fantastical, it wasn’t the things that I actually sought out, but there were other things about that that I loved. I love the human elements of Black Mirror. I love the elements of love and addiction and emotional ambiguity. I love the conflict that was involved in Black Mirror. I love the social commentary that was involved in Watchmen. I love the adventure elements of Aquaman. It’s really a combination of some of the things that I was attracted to.
Fortunately, those things have gone well for me. But I’m also very much looking to find myself in more grounded stories and dramas. I had a great experience doing The Trial of the Chicago Seven; I’d love to find more films that land in that more grounded area. But ultimately I’m a storyteller, an actor, a storyteller. And so I think I will continue to find myself in a place where all of these stories have good opportunities to be human and to tell human moments, whether that’s Black Manta losing his father, or Dr. Manhattan sacrificing himself for love. What I do try to do is no matter the genre, to try to bring some elements of relatable humanity to those stories, and then to have fun at the same time, because you gotta have fun along the way.
Sun: I think that the best genre stories always function as allegories that are able to reveal a truth about our real-life lived experiences, sometimes in a way in which a direct retelling can’t do as effectively. I’m glad you mentioned that you’ve done a lot of grounded historical work, Chicago Seven, even your debut, The Get Down, a very specific story about a specific place in time. I really believe the sky’s the limit for you, obviously you’re starting to get into producing now. You’ve got networks and studios sort of tailoring projects and collaborating with you to create things. Are there any specific types of stories or themes that you’d like to explore in your work next? What’s interesting to you right now?
Abdul-Mateen: I’ve been saying it recently: I have to find my love story. I think that for as much as we’ve got out in the world right now, I would love to bring back good love stories, good relationship stories. I think there’s an opportunity to tell stories about people trying to connect, trying to see and understand each other without all of this stuff in between. So that’s one of the things that I want to do. But then also continue to create stories that give representation to the Black experience, the underrepresented experience. There’s a huge demographic out there that are writing stories and telling stories but don’t know how to have access to this land that we have access to, and as much as I can inspire and open doors and create pathways for those stories to be told, that’ll make the landscape of the next storytellers or the stories that come out of that a lot more richer.
But for myself, I’ve got a good thing going, and it’d be nice to add some romance and some cultural adventure to it as well. I love being able to do projects that are fun and enjoyable. Then I can also have conversations about how it inspires us to be better people or how it teaches us about our culture or how it just makes somebody feel good because they can relate to what it is that they’re seeing, and all of it is an effort to make the world smaller in the sense that it makes it makes these communities and identity well more relatable, but at the same time it makes the world so much larger, because it speaks to the realm of possibility. So that’s what I’m after in this next phase.
Sun: That’s a great way of putting it. I feel like I know exactly what you mean, making the world smaller and larger at the same time. I’ve never thought about it that way, but that’s a good way of putting it. We always conclude our podcast with two questions, and they both pertain to the theme of today’s episode, which is Black horror. The first question is called “Hollywood, Remixed,” which is: Is there a Black horror film or TV show, or it can just be a Black character in a horror film or something, that you would order a do-over for. And if so, how would you redo it?
Abdul-Mateen: You know, some things should not be touched. J.D.’s Revenge. It’s like a ’70s Blaxploitation horror. Glynn Turman was phenomenal. I’ve been telling everybody about this. It was this crazy story, this pimp in New Orleans who died, he was murdered. And he came back and possessed the body of this young Black graduate student, this Black doctor, in order to get his revenge. It wasn’t comical. It was designed as a horror story, but the character Glynn Turman plays, he went back and forth between this pimp and this straight-laced graduate student who was preparing for his exams. I’m not sure how I would remake that because the performance was excellent. But I would say that I wish more people knew about that film. So maybe if we could have like an HD version or they regraded and then put it back out, that’d be cool. Or maybe you bring Glynn Turman back to do Part Two. That’s how I would do it. I wouldn’t even replace him. I would bring Glynn Turman back to do Part Two and see if he’d be down for that, because the performance was phenomenal. I loved it. It was quite an adventure that not a whole lot of people are still speaking about.
Sun: That actually is a good answer to our second question, which is the Hidden Gem, which is: What’s a recommendation you have? That could be your hidden gem, or I’ll give you a freebie if you want a second one to recommend to everybody.
Abdul-Mateen: I’ll tell you what, if I can answer it twice, I’ll answer like this, knowing that that was the second question: I would say the Hidden Gem is J.D.’s Revenge. Watch that, watch that, watch that. And then my answer to the first one is – it’s funny because yes, I’m very much part of a remake right now – but I want to see a new story. I want to see something new. There’s a lot of young writers and stories and storytellers out there with a fresh perspective, and I’d be looking forward to seeing something new, unless you find a damn good reason to do a remake, which hopefully the audience will agree that we did. But that tends to be my perspective.
Sun: Well said. Yahya, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciated it.
Abdul-Mateen: I appreciate it. Thanks very much, Rebecca.
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Sun: Thanks again to Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Richard Newby for joining us today. You can read Newby’s work on THR.com as well as other outlets including Fangoria, Inverse and The New York Times, and order his book We Make Monsters Here on Amazon. Yahya stars in Candyman, in theaters August 27, and will be seen in The Matrix 4 later this year. You may have heard of that franchise. Stay tuned next week when Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star Simu Liu joins us to deconstruct Asian masculinity and the martial artist trope. In the meantime, please subscribe to Hollywood Remixed on the podcast platform of your choice. Stay safe out there.
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