Ruth E. Carter’s résumé reads like a list of iconic favorites from contemporary black cinema. In the 30 years since her first film, Spike Lee’s 1988 hit, School Daze, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated costume designer has amassed more than 60 film and television credits, including I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988); Do the Right Thing (1989); Mo’ Better Blues (1990); House Party 2 (1991); Jungle Fever (1991); The Five Heartbeats (1991); Malcolm X (1992); What’s Love Got to Do With It (1993); Crooklyn (1994); Clockers (1995); B*A*P*S (1997); Rosewood (1997); Amistad (1997); Love & Basketball (2000); Shaft (2000); Bamboozled (2000); Black Dynamite (2009); Sparkle (2012); The Butler (2013); Selma (2014) and Marshall (2017), not to mention Being Mary Jane and the recent reboot of Roots (2016).
Now Carter is stunning us once again with her work in the most anticipated film of the year, Black Panther, her 40th film and first superhero narrative (unless you count Malcolm X). The Glow Up was blessed with the opportunity to speak with her during the flurry of publicity for this groundbreaking film while she took a rare timeout in Cape Town, South Africa. It proved a fitting setting to discuss how she helped create the fictional African country of Wakanda, and how it feels to quietly be one of the architects of black cultural collective consciousness. Ever humble, the now legendary designer told us:
I always felt a responsibility to be authentic and real with depicting the culture. ... You look at enough research, you know the people. They’re your relatives, they’re your family. And so, collectively, when [I] look at my work, I just feel proud that I had some consistency with my approach to all of them. There was never one that I felt wasn’t important for us to learn from.
I was challenged each time to really get it right. ... That’s kind of been my journey. And so when I look back at everything, I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride that Black Panther has kind of brought me full circle. I feel like I traveled from slavery with Roots and Amistad. And I went through the Depression with Rosewood in the ’20s. I did Selma in the ’50s. With Malcolm X, it was the ’20s all the way through the ’60s, and then I got a little ’70s here and there with some funny ones like Black Dynamite. And then Black Panther came along, and now I’m circling right back to Africa. So I actually feel like I closed the circle a little bit ... and I think they all helped to connect African history and African-American history. I’m hoping for that.
Carter, who has made history of her own as the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award in costume design—first for Malcolm X and again for Amistad—ventured into new territory for her first Marvel film. In a stroke of luck, she learned she’d gotten the job while working on Marshall, the Thurgood Marshall biopic starring future T’Challa, Chadwick Boseman, directed by Black Panther comic writer Reginald Hudlin.
“I’m like, you know how lucky is this? I get to study [Chadwick’s] body; I get to ask Reggie questions about the Black Panther concept,” Carter said.
But even that recon couldn’t fully prepare Carter for the Marvel experience, working with a team of five illustrators and a huge crew to bring the citizens of Wakanda to life. It was also the first time she had to design with movie merchandise in mind—including action figures—which meant that unlike Carter’s previous work, many of the major costumes, like T’Challa’s iconic suit, were already well-defined. Instead, her role was to bring authenticity to characters that the fans of Black Panther have previously known only as illustrations, as she told The Glow Up: “Once I got the framework, we did a lot of experimentation. ... It’s kind of like they gave me a coloring book and a big box of crayons.”
That experimentation involved extensive research by Carter’s team of four, exploring the ancient peoples of Africa—including the Zulu, Maasai, Himba, Xhosa and the Turkana, which inspired the beautiful beading and neckpieces of the Dora Milaje. (Notably, Carter tries to steer clear of the word “tribe” because of its colonialist overtones, preferring to simply call each group of people by its name.)
In doing so, her team divided Wakanda into districts, according to a “bible” of sorts composed by director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, that outlined both the story and layout of the fictional country. Said Carter:
It was an incredible piece of work; it was an incredible notebook that really forged us all so far ahead, because we were all working from the same nucleus ... there’s different [communities] of Wakanda, and that bible that they did really outlined what parts of Wakanda were what. [For example] if you take any city, like New York, and you divide it by, you know, midtown, Brooklyn, the Village, NYU area, uptown, Columbia, Harlem, you kind of have a good sense of how Wakanda is broken up, too.
In addition to Carter’s core team, she also employed locals in South Africa and Ghana to search out antiques that would inspire the handmade feel she strongly felt Black Panther’s costumes needed to have. Following Coogler’s request that even the armor of the Dora Milaje feel like jewelry, Carter also brought on board friend and jeweler Douriean, who specializes in Afrofuturistic, hand-tooled, hand-hammered pieces, many of which have been worn by cast members during the film’s premieres and press. Douriean is also the creator of Black Panther’s officially licensed line of jewelry.
And while Carter doesn’t describe the experience as a seamless one, she credits Marvel for helping her realize the vision; even when some of the challenges of bringing Wakanda to life proved daunting:
I had the greatest support from Marvel. The head executives, they never wavered. I never, ever felt—and you know, every costume designer has at some point on a show felt like, “They’re going to fire me, I know it. I’m going to be fired tonight.” We all go through that. And even though I may have had those thoughts, they were few and far between because I felt like I was supported 100 percent.
Carter is no stranger to making even the improbable possible; in her days as a student at Hampton University, she created a costume-design curriculum for herself after finding that there was nothing available to foster her budding talent. After graduation and a few opera-company internships, her HBCU experience and ingenuity came in handy when a chance meeting with director Spike Lee led to her first film, the now classic School Daze. It was the first of 14 films they’d make together.
But even if she’d do it all again, would she advise others to follow in her footsteps? She told The Glow Up: “Well, don’t do what I did, because I don’t think it works today. I think that there’s more avenues than I had. So I hope that my career has made some of those avenues available for other people.”
If nominated for next year’s Academy Award, Carter could become both the first woman ever to win for a superhero film and the first black woman to win for best costume design. But when asked if she has any reservations or resentments about primarily being hired to costume black films—which make up most, but far from all, of her work—she had this to say:
I used to say all the time: I’m not the first girl they think of when they have Jennifer Lawrence or Gwyneth Paltrow as a lead in their film. I’m, like, 25th on the list. But when they want to do a biopic about Martin Luther King, I’m one or two. You know, that’s just, I think, the way Hollywood thinks, and I don’t think that there’s going to be change in that unless we all think of things differently.
But you know what? I don’t need it to change, to be honest with you. I’m happy re-creating black media, black film, black stories. I’m happy with that. I’m proud of that. So, you know, just give me more. I’m good.