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Say It 5 Times: Nia DaCosta Is the Director of ‘Candyman’ and She’s Made Movie History

The studio emphasized Jordan Peele, but failed to note that it's the first film directed by a Black woman to reach #1 at the box office.

Nia DaCosta

Nia DaCosta and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II on the set of “Candyman”

Screenshot/YouTube

Journalists call it “burying the lede.” Universal’s “Candyman” opened at #1 to $22.3 million, beating its $15 million opening-weekend expectations by nearly 50 percent. Headlines trumpeted the impressive achievement, especially in a time when the box office is still struggling to right itself in a pandemic.

However, the biggest news belongs to its history-making director, Nia DaCosta. She is the first Black female director to have a #1 film at the box office. It’s unlikely to be her last; she’s in preproduction on “The Marvels,” the first sequel to “Captain Marvel” — another couple of firsts, as a Black woman hired as a Marvel Studios director and as the highest-budgeted film directed by a Black woman.

Ava DuVernay was the first Black woman to helm a $100-million picture when she directed Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time” in 2016, but she remains an outlier: Even as industry inclusion initiatives abound, Black women are still vastly underrepresented in the director’s chair. DaCosta joined that club when Universal hired her for “Candyman,” but the achievement didn’t receive much attention. One possible reason: The job also brought her into a league of indie film directors tapped to make their first studio films under a major-league mentor. That enrollment represented an achievement in its own right, since the group is comprised almost entirely of white men, but also made it less likely that her own identity would earn attention.

DaCosta’s feature debut, “Little Woods,” starred Tessa Thompson and Lily James as working-class sisters ekeing out a living in North Dakota. After a world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, Neon released it in spring 2019 to critical acclaim and a gross of just over $170,000. Just as Colin Trevorrow (“Safety Not Guaranteed”) made “Jurassic World” under the guidance of Steven Spielberg, and Jordan Vogt-Roberts (“The Kings of Summer”) made “Kong: Skull Island” within the infrastructure of Legendary Entertainment, DaCosta worked closely with producer and co-writer Jordan Peele.

As an award-winning filmmaker credited with crafting a new genre of socially conscious horror films, it’s unsurprising that Peele is a major marketing hook. (The film’s official logline begins: “Oscar® winner Jordan Peele unleashes a fresh take on the blood-chilling urban legend: Candyman.”) That also created market confusion over who directed the film, which had the effect of erasing the woman who did the work.

It’s been 30 years since the release of Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust,” the first feature film directed by a Black woman to receive North American theatrical distribution and her only theatrical feature to date. Criticism from 2018 Golden Globes presenter Natalie Portman about the lack of female representation in the Best Director category still echoes.

According to San Diego State University’s Celluloid Ceiling report, 2020 was the “best” year yet for female directors: Women accounted for 16 percent of the directors who worked on the 100 highest-grossing films in 2020, up from 12 percent in 2019 and 4 percent in 2018. The top 100 films of 2020 include one directed by a Black woman, with Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph.” The year also saw Gina Prince-Bythewood become the first Black woman to direct a big-budget comic book movie with Netflix’s “The Old Guard.”

Universal failed to tout, or acknowledge, DaCosta’s achievement. The studio didn’t even include it in their press outreach reporting the film’s gross. (A studio representative could not be reached for comment.)

Still, “Candyman” is an accomplishment that belongs to Nia DaCosta forever.

Additional reporting by Tom Brueggemann.

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