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Warner Bros’ “Suicide Squad,” & Course-Correcting on a Black Female Hero

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Warner Bros’ “Suicide Squad,” & Course-Correcting on a Black Female Hero

A few weeks ago, Warner Bros. announced that a “Suicide Squad” film, based on the DC Comics title of the same name, would be hitting theaters in August of 2016. The cast includes Hollywood powerhitters Will Smith, Jared Leto and Tom Hardy. However, one of the most interesting casting decisions in the works is the actress who will play the character of Amanda Waller, a high-ranking intelligence officer and head of Task Force X, the group of super-criminals working as a strike team for the U.S. government under duress.

The top choices include Oprah Winfrey and Viola Davis, and this masterstroke has its origins going back about three decades, to the introduction of Amanda Waller in the comic books.

The first issue of DC Comics’ “Suicide Squad” was published in 1987, and while it was not Amanda’s first appearance, it would be the ongoing kick-off to her character. Created by John Ostrander, Len Wein and John Byrne, Amanda Waller was a formidable Black woman of size. She was not rail thin. She did not possess the body type of an average supermodel by any means.

DC Comics and the creators of Amanda Waller went against the tide of the sexualized formidable female and made this character someone of power by virtue of her character, which spoke to a certain kind of truth about Amanda. In a nation and culture governed by Caucasian men, working for the United States government on matters of grave import, a dark-skinned Black woman of size would have to be very dangerous, very cunning, a lateral thinker and willing to do, without hesitation, the ugly things most of her peers would not.

Like controlling a group of supervillains and making them work for her.
That woman would not be judged solely on merits equivalent to those of her co-workers, and she knew it.

Amanda Waller knew it. She had to be The Sum of All Fears to get the job done, and even more dangerous to maintain her authority.
Throughout the decades since Amanda’s introduction in the comic books, her character was portrayed by various actresses on television and cinema, including Pam Grier and Angela Bassett for live-action appearances on the “Smallville” television show and the “Green Lantern” film, respectively. Additionally, Amanda Waller appeared in the critically acclaimed animated series “Justice League Unlimited” and various Batman video games, where she was given voice by actress CCH Pounder of “NCIS New Orleans”, “Sons of Anarchy”, and “The Shield”.
In “Smallville” and “Justice League Unlimited”, Amanda Waller was shown as someone of physical weight, with less weight in “Green Lantern”… and then something happened.

DC Comics did a reboot of their entire comic book superhero universe in the year 2011, in which many of their characters had revised and reimagined histories.

In the case of Amanda Waller, she also had a reimagined body, inclusive of a lighter complexion.

The major reveal of the first issue of DC Comics’ revamped “Suicide Squad” title was the introduction of an Amada Waller who was not big in size. It was a shock, for sure, and the subject of lots of online debate.
Comic book characters that stand the test of time become, to some degree, iconic. The character of Amanda Waller became iconic, in part as a big Black woman of power. The change to Amanda’s body type and dark skin was a shattering of an icon.

Another nail was put in the coffin of that icon when Amanda Waller was introduced in the second season of the popular CW television series “Arrow,” played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who more closely resembled the new version of Amanda in the comic books. Now make no mistake, the “Arrow” version of Amanda Waller will shoot you in the face, order the elimination of hundreds of thousands of people to save tens of millions, and will activate a bomb inside a supervillain’s brain without pause.
That said, do you know how the character has been repeatedly introduced in the television show? How you as a viewer should know that Amanda is here and things are about to go sideways?

By her shoes. You see a worm’s eye view shot of a thin Black woman’s legs walking into the scene wearing an expensive pair of high-heeled shoes.

It’s interesting, insofar as it’s part objectification and part subversive, to get your attention so you look at what Amanda is going to do. To look at her. With respect.

Still, how many women of larger body types are introduced in the same way in television and film? Not many, would be my guess. Aren’t they sexy? Interesting? Formidable?

“Hell yes, they are,” would be my answer.

We’re going to see Warner Bros. answer that question in 2016, based upon which actress they manage to pull in to command the Suicide Squad, but the choices of actresses Oprah Winfrey and Viola Davis are very interesting not because of their fame.

Because Oprah Winfrey is a woman of size and Viola Davis is a woman of dark skin.

Either of these women portraying Amanda Waller will be an acknowledgment on the part of Warner Bros., whether intentional or not, that the iconic nature of Black women in popular media is undeniable as being more than one size or one complexion. One need only watch “The Walking Dead” or “How To Get Away With Murder” to see the actress Danai Gurira or the aforementioned Viola Davis prove the point week after week on popular television, or see actress Lupita Nyong’o of “12 Years A Slave” and the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for an example.
Unlike the Marvel Studios Cinematic Universe, in which there is only one-live action version of a comic book character, Warner Bros. has the benefit (and sometimes burden) of having separate television and film universes for their characters.

This will allow them to have two versions of Amanda Waller. One who represents the version seen in the comic books today…

…and one resembling the Amanda Waller of days gone by. Large and in charge.

And in doing so, if they cast either Oprah or Viola, or someone with a similar look, Warner Bros. will be addressing a problem they recognize but seemed indifferent to up to this point.

They can have their cake and eat it, too, and get back to a more expanded vision of what a powerful Black woman looks like.
After all, my mother has no idea what a “Suicide Squad” is, but she’ll love it if Oprah becomes the next superhero universe badass.

Joseph Phillip Illidge has been a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and politics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.

Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.

His latest project is “The Ren,” a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. “The Ren” will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.

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