A Short History of the Black Catwoman

With its 83-year history, the mythos of Batman contains multitudes. The dark knight detective of director Matt Reeves’s The Batman tracks with DC Comics’ Detective Comics stories from the 1970s, painting Gotham’s superhero as an avenging sleuth. But what of the aged Batman from comics’ original multiverse world Earth-Two, who marries Catwoman, settles into retirement, and passes the mantle to their daughter? Or the campy bam! biff! pow! Batman TV series starring Adam West? The original gun-toting Batman of the early ’40s? The infamous Rainbow Batman? Eight decades allows for a lot of detritus, and the folklore of Catwoman runs just as wide-spanning.

Since her creation in the first issue of Batman (1940), the essence of Catwoman is that of an antihero with a checkered past in burglary who carries on a sexually charged love-hate relationship with the caped crusader. But over the years, writers have penned Selina Kyle as a schizophrenic, amnesiac flight attendant; a dominatrix sex worker; a morally conflicted jewel thief; a bisexual crime boss; and notably, as an African American, over two films and one television show.

And why not? Nothing specific in Catwoman’s history precludes her from being a black woman. So for over 50 years,Selina Kyle has occasionally and casually shown up as African American, proving colorblind casting is nothing for fanboys to be up in arms about. This despite the habitually backwards tendencies of Hollywood casting directors. “[For The Dark Knight Rises], they told me that I couldn’t get an audition for a small role they were casting because they weren’t ‘going urban,’ ” Zoë Kravitz—the latest Catwoman in The Batman, out this week—once told Nylon. “It was like, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ I have to play the role like, ‘Yo, what’s up, Batman? What’s going on wit chu?’ ”

Well, something changed, placing Kravitz in a long lineage. With Kravitz’s already celebrated turn opposite Robert Pattinson in mind, here’s an abbreviated history of the black Catwoman.

Batman (1967)

Anyone remember the 1995 comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo dressed as drag queens on a cross-country road trip? A Tony-winning actress, Julie Newmar portrayed celluloid’s original Catwoman on the first two seasons of ABC’s Batman TV series. (Her skintight catsuit hangs in the Smithsonian.) A former Miss America, actress Lee Meriweather picked up the role in Hollywood’s Batman (1966), which ran in theaters while fans tuned into the TV show every Wednesday and Thursday nights. But in December 1967, the network exercised some colorblind casting, with singer-actress Eartha Kitt taking over as the program’s final Catwoman.

“Catwoman’s Dressed to Kill” marked Eartha Kitt’s debut as the first black Catwoman (though she appeared in an uncredited tease at the end of the previous episode). Kitt—born Eartha Mae Keith—was a sultry, refined multitalent who’d danced with the Katherine Dunham Company, acted in Orsen Welles’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, sang hits like “Santa Baby” and spoke four languages.

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