The film Suicide Squad provides some cultural analysis, but falls into old traps that have long plagued movies that have attempted to mesh together characters from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds. The film features a diverse cast of actors and actresses, and even has a black man—Will Smith—playing the film’s lead. It is an attempt to provide viewers with a fully inclusive experience in furtherance of a plot that is interesting. While these goals are noble, the execution is poor. At its core, the film relies heavily on superficial depictions of various characters, playing on racial stereotypes that have long been held and condemned in American culture and around the world.

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The film portrays a sub-human character with a voice played by an African-American actor. That character has scales for a face, and he is committed to living underground. The character is never given truly human characteristics, and in fact, he is consistently maligned as being a mixture of animal and human being. Importantly, in the end, the film remarks that this character’s only wish is to sit around and watch rap videos on Black Entertainment Television from his jail cell. For many years, black men in America have been displayed as simple and not desirous of anything beyond the most basic form of entertainment. They have also been dehumanized in popular culture, in news reporting, and in the criminal justice system. One of the most common characterizations of black men is that they are slothful and otherwise without ambition. While the depiction of a monster with a black actor’s voice would have been problematic enough, adding in the prison and rap video stereotypes truly act to heighten the disturbing portrayal this character brings to bear.

The way other characters interact with this one is another critical element of the film that deserves review. Other characters in the film do not have normal human relationships with this character, even though he later shows himself capable of carrying on in normal human ways. These characters look to him to do only those jobs that the main characters do not want to do, signaling some poor assumptions about the value he brings to the table and his willingness to endure sub-human treatment. In some ways, he represents the “Magical Negro” stereotype that has become so popular in many movies. According to that genre, a black character appears with unusual or mystical powers. While the typical “Magical Negro” is mostly dedicated to helping a white main perform unlikely heroism, this character acts in service of another goal. The implication is that a black character must be of another world to demonstrate unusual creativity, boldness, or braveness. This takes away from the ability of black human beings to accomplish great things, and does much to undermine the potential impact that an actual black character might have. While one might argue that there is already a black character doing good things, and thus this character is not needed for that role, this brings to the table questions about why there can only be one black character of substance in the film, when nearly every other film in the world is fine with having many white characters who show unusual bravery or substance.

More subtly, the film also uses Will Smith’s character to build on some of the less direct racist critiques of black culture. Within the political messaging in America, black men have long been maligned as poor or distant fathers (Fiske & Hancock). Within a strain of American politics, there is a belief that certain problems in communities arise from fathers who are drug-addicted or otherwise taken out of the home. Will Smith’s character may be noble in some ways, but the film shows only a few scenes of Smith’s character with his daughter, and in one of those scenes, he is describing drug dealing. He is portrayed as a father who cannot help his daughter because he is out of the house and in prison. The traditional view of fathers in movies shows them helping their kids with a host of different things, including homework, discussions about growing up, and even assistance with boys. This is not what Will Smith’s character is asked to do. Instead, he is asked to play the role of the father who is unable to help his daughter with the little things a daughter might need to know in order to take on a difficult world. This helps to support and bolster those racial stereotypes that have long plagued black men in the United States, and have maligned the black community in general (Hamer).

It is not only with African-American characters that these caricatures take place. Importantly, there is an Australian character who is given an over the top accent and said to be only interested in drinking beer and breaking things. There are stereotypes abounding about Australian men being out of control and somewhat unruly. This is an especially troubling stereotype because it does not just include a sub-group, but rather, an entire nation of people. There are many men in Australia, and many of them have their own particular interests and skills. By reducing them down to boomerangs and broken beer glasses, the filmmakers refuse to recognize the complex nature of Australian people, putting on the screen for American viewers the simplest picture they might have had in their head. The character of Asian descent is a woman who believes so deeply in religious convictions that she believes her husband lives in her sword. In addition to playing on less than complex pictures of Eastern religious belief, this plays into racial stereotypes about Asian women that have been critiqued in other parts of popular culture, as well. In particular, the film Mulan drew some criticism because it did not feature the young female character doing anything other than fighting with weaponry. While some might argue that the stereotypes of her in this movie are positive, they are still stereotypes, and they still undermine the total complexity of this human character, who deserves to be fully vested and developed in the film.

Suicide Squad trades out the potential for providing deep pictures of characters for something less than that. The film goes cheap when relying on these shallow racial stereotypes to paint pictures of these characters. In that way, the film is damaging, and it could have moved the conversation forward rather than playing a role in furthering racial stereotypes that have already shown the ability to produce tremendous harm in society. By depicting black men as being shallow, only interested in sex and rap music, and poor fathers, the film is furthering racist critiques of those individuals. These things not only contribute to negative problems in society, but they can be summed up as missed opportunities, as well. Movies have the ability to shape perceptions in ways that are positive and meaningful, and every time they depict a character in a simple way, they miss a chance to move the world forward. In addition to that, the film took other characters from other countries and reduced them to the lowest common denominator, not even attempting to deal with the more complex questions of how their cultures might impact their behavior.

  • Fiske, John, and Black Hawk Hancock. Media Matters: Race & Gender in US Politics. Routledge, 2016.
  • Hamer, Jennifer. What it means to be daddy: Fatherhood for black men living away from their children. Columbia University Press, 2012.
  • White, Joseph L., and James H. Cones III. Black man emerging: Facing the past and seizing a future in America. Routledge, 2013.