Between Margot Robbie playing the professional headline thief and Jared Leto relentlessly screaming the word HYPE down a megaphone, Suicide Squad could almost be mistaken for a two-man show.
DC’s finest criminals take centre stage in David Ayer’s big summer blockbuster, and while the character who may prove to be the most important — if not for the DCEU, for mainstream Hollywood in general — isn’t behind bars in Arkham, she’s certainly no hero.
The simple truth is that Amanda Waller, the ruthless government agent played by Viola Davis, is not the kind of woman you’ve seen very often on the big screen.
The Freedom To Be Bad… And Black
Comics have made a massive amount of progress over the last couple of decades when it comes to representation, not just in racial terms, but also in giving role models to LGBT audiences, while redressing the gender balance to equal out the divide between male and female heroes.
In movies, though, a distinct trend remains: black and ethnic minority characters must be more or less good. On a basic level that’s because, having cast a non-white actor in a major role, most Hollywood movies are afraid to risk the wrath of social justice warriors and equality campaigners by giving their black actor a villainous role to play.
When a black actor does get cast in a villainous role, as in the case of Idris Elba in Star Trek Beyond, the color of their skin seems to present a problem. In Beyond, Elba’s antagonist Krall is covered in prosthetics to the point that he resembles the titular (and extremely plastic) villain of X-Men: Apocalypse.
For decades the James Bond movies have featured countless non-white Bond girls, sidekicks and henchmen, but the main villain hasn’t been black since Live And Let Die‘s Dr. Kananga, way back in 1973. Grace Jones played a villainess in A View To A Kill a decade later but, inevitably, she turned good in the end. But why must a black villain come armed with a redemption arc?
You can find black villains in Hollywood if you look hard enough (Samuel L. Jackson’s flamboyant billionaire Richmond Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service, for instance), but the truth is that black characters are rarely afforded the freedom to be bad – and while that’s hardly the worst discrimination a black actor could face, it still represents a frustrating status quo in which the cherry pick of the most interesting roles in cinema go primarily to white actors.
That brings us neatly back to Amanda Waller and the reason that Suicide Squad, a film already taking liberties with classic notions of what it means to be a hero or an anti-hero, is such a breath of fresh air. Amanda Waller is bad. Not kind of bad, but a sweetheart deep down. Not sassy, loud, blunt, but soft beneath the surface. Sure, she’s bringing a bunch of Gotham City’s finest scum together (“the worst of the worst”) to, in her own words, “do some good”, but her methods are dark, to put it mildly. Inserting a bomb into the neck of somebody to bend them to your will is not the mark of a particularly moral human being.
No. Waller is just plain, straight-up nasty, a cold and calculating careerist happy to use anybody to do her dirty business, before dropping them like hot coals should it all go tits-up. To quote the lady herself: “Built-in deniability.”
For Viola Davis, getting right down to the meat of a character not situated at the ‘good’ end of the moral spectrum is nothing new — her How To Get Away With Murder character Professor Annalise Keating straddles the grey area between good and bad in a red leather ensemble that screams “Don’t fuck with me!” — but still the prospect of playing an antagonist as ruthless as Waller for the two-time Oscar nominee:
[On why she took the role:] “She’s Amanda Waller! She’s badass… Everything that I’m reading and studying about her: unapologetic, no humor, just brutal. That’s me!”
For black actors, having the opportunity to play the same variety of characters — the good, the bad, the morally ambiguous — remains a privilege not always afforded, so the DC team behind Suicide Squad (and the years of comic book history it draws from) should be applauded for allowing a black actress to portray a bad bitch.
That’s true equal opportunity.
Suicide Squad hits theaters on August 5, and although Leto and Robbie are guaranteed to get asses on seats, the real winner here may just be the black woman running the show.
You are the Princess Shireen of the House Baratheon, and you are my daughter.