Zoe Kravitz Continues the Tradition of Women of Color Playing Catwoman
Zoe Kravitz is the newest actress to be cast as Catwoman. The Batman, scheduled for release in 2021, has already established itself as one of the big superhero films coming out in an already-loaded year. Fans have grown used to seeing Batman and his rogues gallery reinterpreted every few years. So, for some, Kravitz looks set to bring new life to the sensual feline villain.
However, some people have argued it's bad casting, but the only reason they use to support their claim is highly problematic: Zoe Kravitz is a person of color, while Selina Kyle, according to them, is white. This tired argument against casting actors of a different race to play an established character gets recycled endlessly, most recently with Ariel from The Little Mermaid.Click the button below to start this article in quick view. Start now
However, when it comes to Catwoman, this declaration is even more problematic. Kravitz is not the first woman of color to play Catwoman -- in fact, she isn't even the second. Women of color have long brought Catwoman to life.
People of Color in Batman
Before we continue, let's establish that there was an era where no one seemed to bat an eye at a person of color playing a character in Batman. Billy Dee Williams very famously played Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's Batman, and had he not been switched out for Tommy Lee Jones, would've played Two-Face in Batman Forever (and was supposed to appear in Batman Returns, with some falsely reporting that he would've occupied the role of Christopher Walken's character).
At one point, Marlon Wayans was cast as Robin for Batman Returns and Batman Forever, though ultimately the role ended up going to Chris O'Donnell. Taye Diggs was considered for that role as well.
The point is that no one would have cared had they cast Marlon Wayans as Robin in the '90s, but casting Zoe Kravitz is enough to enrage a subset of fans in 2019. The outrage is not only racist, it's ridiculous because there's already precedent, throughout cinematic history, for a woman of color playing Catwoman including Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry.
Eartha Kitt is the third actress to play Catwoman in the Adam West Batman series. A show that proved supremely popular in the '60s and brought a degree of self-aware humor to the proceedings. Kitt, however, brought something more radical: she was the first racially recast superhero.
Kitt took over the role following Julie Newmar and Lee Meriwether's performances in the first two seasons and movie for Batman, respectively. The two actors left a mark on pop culture, but Kitt took the role during a critical moment in American society: the height of the Civil Rights movement. Along with Nichelle Nichols as Uhura in Star Trek, Kitt had a major role on a prime time television series, offering representation at a time when black people were still fighting for basic human rights.
Furthermore, both Newmar and Meriwether were white women, which meant Kitt took over the mantle from two white actresses in the same continuity. But Kitt became immediately iconic for her portrayal of Catwoman.
When asked how she got the role, Kitt responded, "They called and asked if I would do it. ... I'm very glad I got that part. It was one of the funniest things I've ever done without thinking how funny I was. ... People say to me, 'You are a cat. You move like a cat. You talk like a cat. You grrrrowl like a cat. And you look like a cat."
They cast the best actress for the part, and she delivered beautifully.
In some ways, this is reminiscent of Jeffrey Wright's rumored casting as Commissioner Gordon in The Batman, since, if this film is in continuity with Justice League, older Gordon is played by J.K. Simmons.
After Kitt, the next woman to play Catwoman was Michelle Pfeiffer, who was followed by Halle Berry. While the '60s series never addressed Catwoman as Selina Kyle, the film Catwoman distinctly clarifies that its Catwoman is not Selina Kyle. In many ways, it was the first villain spin-off film, preceding films like Venom or Joker. It's also possibly the single worst superhero film ever made.
Originally, Catwoman was going to feature Pfeiffer reprising her role, but due to the long pre-production of the film, she moved on to other projects -- along with original director Tim Burton. Without Pfeiffer, the filmmakers felt free to cast the biggest star at the time, Berry, for the role of Patience Phillips, who inherits the mantle of Catwoman as result of some totemic cat spirit thing. The movie's plot is bizarre.
Berry had found success earlier for playing Storm in the X-Men film franchise. This established her as a figure in the world of superheroes, but nothing could prepare Berry for the way this project was mishandled by all creative parties involved.
The film is often remembered as the absolute bottom of the superhero barrel, though Berry, to her credit, has not avoided discussing the movie. She very notably accepted her Golden Raspberry award in person, going as far as to issue an acceptance speech.
Furthermore, Berry has voiced her support for Kravitz as the newest Catwoman.
What History Has Shown Us
History has established that Catwoman is a character that is not confined to a single race. Whether it's Selina Kyle, Patience Phillips, or just plain Catwoman, the character is a burglar with a whip who has romanced the Dark Knight. None of these are qualities unique to white people.
In fact, Eartha Kitt's performance as Catwoman is particularly important to the development of American culture. In order to understand the importance of herrole, we need to discuss another genre show that aired alongside Batman: Star Trek.
When Nichols almost left Star Trek for another role, Martin Luther King Jr. himself argued that Nichols leaving would be terrible for the state of American culture. During a conversation with King, Nichols recalled him telling her,"STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!”