If you’re unfamiliar with Ruth E Carter’s name, you’ll most certainly recognise her movie credits. The costume designer has created some of the most iconic on-screen looks from Amistad to Malcolm X, House Party 2 and Shaft to name just a few. But it is her work on Marvel’s forthcoming critically-acclaimed Black Panther which is generating the widespread buzz Carter’s talents deserve.
Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler and boasts a star-studded cast, including Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Bassett. With a predominantly black line-up, it’s a momentous project for Carter to take on and could earn her the third Oscar nomination of her career – she’s previously received nods for Malcolm X and Amistad.
What would it mean for Carter to potentially become the first woman to win an Oscar for a superhero film and the first black woman to win Best Costume Design?
“I feel so honoured to be given this film as a wonderful opportunity,” Carter tells The Silhouette UK with deep sincerity in her voice.
“When I was nominated for Malcolm X, I was the first black woman to be nominated and I went through a lot of emotions regarding being the first. It was 1992 and I couldn’t believe that in such a modern time, we were still experiencing firsts like this. And here we are almost 30 years later, we still haven’t reached that first win. I think it has to do with opportunities that are not necessarily for people of colour to be on film that have costumes of this magnitude to be considered for nominations and wins.”
Thanks to Coogler, Black Panther has undoubtedly provided the rare opportunity for black actors to showcase their talents in a superhero movie without being the ‘token’. But with Black Panther being a member of the prestigious Marvel Cinematic Universe, Carter understandably felt pressure to give the costumes justice while still making sure to leave her own unique mark.
The designer explained: “The comics are developed for boys and men generally, especially with the subject of superheroes that are big on young boys and big boys. So the women that are usually depicted in comics can be very strong like Wonder Woman and the rest but, they’re usually depicted very scantily-clad, I should say.
“Where we’ve changed the narrative with the Black Panther, we decided that women needed to be more functional as far as if they’re dressed for battle, they are wearing armour pieces and their bodies are covered because they are protecting themselves and others.”
Watch the extended Black Panther trailer:
Black Panther is set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda which happens to be technologically advanced. Albeit not real, it portrays Africa in a positive light at a time when the real-life US President Donald Trump allegedly believes Africa to be a continent comprised of “s**thole countries”.
Carter agrees that Black Panther epitomises a strong social and political message, stating: “I think it is perfectly timed. You couldn’t have timed it better but it wasn’t our plan, it’s kind of like the gods I guess aligning.”
With passionate conviction, she continues: “We are in a new time and this is what people want. If we can’t say it in the traditional way, we have to say it in a non-traditional way and Black Panther being so embraced is making that point in that non-traditional way.
“If people like Trump don’t hear it when we say Black Lives Matter then let’s all show it visually in the narrative of Black Panther, in this world of Wakanda that is a forward nation in the centre of Africa that is paying tribute to African culture which is also African-American culture. It speaks to where we’re all from since the beginning of civilisation and it can’t be ignored.”
When we speak to Carter, it’s just a few hours after her return from a long and well-deserved holiday in Cape Town, South Africa. She describes it as being an insightful trip where she witnessed locals maintaining their traditional culture while embracing modernity.
“How is it that they’ve been able to hold onto that and still move forward?” she questions.
“It says to me that Africa is next, that the understanding of people from the third-world is a different understanding and there are still problems and issues with poverty that we also have in this country so there is no difference in America.”
Directly referencing Trump’s insulting and uneducated comments, Carter adds: “That the people there [in Africa] are so technologically advanced that are thinkers, builders, scientists and business owners to slap everybody in a big ugly place and call it a s**thole is just so unfair to the building of this country and what this country represented from the very beginning where people could come and seek their fortune or build a home or raise a family. I feel like that’s what this country is and Trump totally negates that and wants to change the direction but we won’t allow the direction to change.”
Carter couldn’t hold back a big, hearty laugh when told about the bet circulating online for a courageous reporter to ask Trump about his opinion on Wakanda as though it were a real country. Let’s face it, it’s something most would revel in witnessing.
When realising that costume design was something she could happily do as a career, Carter was hellbent on succeeding and even created her own curriculum at Hampton University. Later, a chance meeting with Spike Lee blossomed into one of the most magnificent partnerships in film. Together, Lee and Carter have worked on 14 movies together, including Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, ‘Mo Better Blues and, of course, Malcolm X.
Even with all the years of hard work and unprecedented achievements, Carter admits that as an African-American woman, she continues to be stereotyped in the Hollywood movie industry.
“I feel that entertainment in its medium also mimics life. The experiences I have had as a woman growing up in America and facing the discrimination of that is the same that I see in Hollywood. I haven’t been molested, I was not approached by a producer, director or actor in an inappropriate way. Maybe because I’m not trying to be a glamour girl Hollywood starlet that is seen like a sexual being by Hollywood,” she explains.
“… But as far as being discriminated as a black woman [in Hollywood], I deal with the same kind of discrimination that I do as a black woman in America. There are stereotypes that people feel embody the look of the black race and because of my work with Spike Lee, I knew how to recognise when someone is creating a stereotype and how to navigate away from that.”
Carter notes: “It’s offensive when a studio dismisses me because I don’t have an accent, I’m not a size 00 and I can’t afford to buy the top designer clothes to come to work in everyday.”
Even more shocking, some executives mistakenly believe Carter to be “the help” on-set before realising she is the head costume designer. On her attitude towards the stereotypes, Carter says: “I was told in earlier years to be aggressive but it’s just not me. I’m more of a person who wants to find you as an artist and not just a black or white person. I want to understand what you want to accomplish.”
It’s a chaotic time in Hollywood right now to put it mildly. Following the Harvey Weinstein sexual assault scandal in October 2017, a rapidly increasing number of high-profile men in the movie industry have been exposed for their inappropriate behaviour towards actresses over the last two decades.
In support of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement, Oprah Winfrey delivered an empowering speech at the Golden Globes in January encouraging women to take their control back from the clutches of the aforementioned abusive men.
Sharing her thoughts on Winfrey’s presidential-style speech, Carter says: “I think for women it’s someone of note giving them permission to not be abused or afraid to join the countless numbers of women who have accepted an inferior place in society. Time’s Up really speaks to so many levels of consciousness.
“For women today it’s about embracing who you are, having no fear and being able to talk about it. We’re in a male-dominated society that sometimes doesn’t give us permission to be strong and wants to paints a picture so old and antiquated that we can’t drive a bus but now we’re changing the face of that and saying no longer are we in a subservient role.”
The costume designer continues: “We are now driving our fate and demanding that we too have a place in society that’s important. I’m not sure what it will do because I think about the 70s and women burning their bras and that movement. I’m hopeful for the future and I’m going to do my part to create an image for someone who fought to be here and who’s claiming her space.”
Carter has seen it all and done it all – almost. After working on the epic biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It?, she counts its subject Tina Turner as a “big sister” and even has an Emmy nomination for designing Roots. But there’s still more work to do.
Admiring the design work on recent films like Girls Trip and The Shape Of Water, Carter muses: “I hope in the future I can find my position in this new space where it’s highly collaborative because I’ve always enjoyed that. I hope I get to experience, what I can see from the outside looking in, what seems to be a wonderful artistic endeavour. That’s what I hope for myself and I can get on more films like that. The sky’s the limit.”
Black Panther is set for release on 13th February in the UK.