Ruth Carter has been breaking barriers and building her reputation in the film industry for over 30 years. She is the first woman of color to be nominated for an Academy Award in best achievement in costume design, for Malcolm X, and has also been thus recognized for Amistad, She has worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including Joss Whedon, Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lee Daniels, Steven Spielberg, but she has a special place in her heart for her mentor and friend, director Spike Lee, with whom she got her start, and with whom she has collaborated on over ten movies.
In creating costume designs for historical figures like Martin Luther King, her attention to detail and commitment to research has been so intense, she attends to elements as small is the tilt of a hat, or the way a scarf is tied. She has now turned that passion for detail and interest in historical accuracy to the mythical world of Wakanda. I spoke to Ruth about her work helping build the world and characters of Black Panther, and the benefit of collaboration.
Leslie Combemale: I know research is a very important part of your work. It also means once you’ve done a project you’re changed from being engrossed in so much history. In researching for Black Panther, and learning about the tribes you wanted to represent, what were a few surprises you found after you’d gone deep into your research?
Ruth Carter: I’ve always used African art and images of indigenous African tribes to inspire for color and design, even on modern films, but most of my other films were dealing with West Africa, where the Africans were taken for slavery. Sierra Leone for Amistad, and the countries on the coast. This was the first time where we really dealt with all areas of Africa, from Kenya to Mali down to South Africa so what it did was give me an opportunity to see regionally what the tribes were doing. If they were sub-Saharan, like the Tuareg tribe, it was one look. We noticed that with the Touring tribe the women, who are Muslim, don’t cover their faces, the men do. In the Ndebele, we saw the neck rings, but we also saw the neck rings on a tribe that was a little bit to the Northeast. What it did was give me a sense of the map and how everything is set and how diverse the continent is. We always want to look at the West African side, to Nigeria and Ghana, that’s important too, but that’s not all Africa.
Most of the tribes are gone because everyone wants to move into the city and you know pop culture is universal, so you might see a Himba girl (of Namibia) walking with a leather drape, and then have the red clay and be walking a cow, but she’ll have a cell phone.
LC: Speaking of research, it all leads to the details present in your designs and finished garments. More than many other films, the costumes in Black Panther really expand our understanding of the characters. Can you tell us a few things to look for that are some favorite elements we might miss?
RC: I implore anyone who wants to, to pick the movie’s costumes apart and analyze them, because there was so much that went into them! I would say to look for the talismans on the front of the tabards for the Dora Milaje, their tabards have these protective ornaments. You could look for the Okovango pattern that’s on the Black Panther suit, it’s a triangular pattern that represents the sacred geometry and makes him an African king. You can look for the design pattern in Lupita’s dress in the casino scene, it has a raised supplemental pattern created with a Kente cloth. We extracted the line work on the Kente cloth and made the pattern and printed it.
LC: I was going to ask you about the Kimoyo beads which make up the bracelets everyone wears. They serve so many purposes and yet straddle costume and special effects. I find that fascinating.
RC: Everybody wanted to be the person that came up with the Kimoyo bead and what it looked like. I created a bead in our meetings, and Hanna Beachler, our production designer brought one too. She’s the one that won the Kimoyo bead contest, if you will. So her design was used and the prop guy was also part of it, because it’s actually like a prop. There’s a phone there, there’s a hologram there. The serve many purposes. They are the way that people in Wakanda communicate so their look and design was really important, even though of course they had to have an organic look as well.
LC: Can you talk about the collaboration that was required for this film, from the costuming to production design, to hair and makeup and special effects? They all have to be tightly integrated!
RC: Moviemaking can be so disjointed. The production designer comes on before the costume designer, and the costume designer comes on before the makeup and hair designers, who come in with just a tiny bit of prep and are often having incredibly tough deadlines, so sharing is hugely important for a film like this. If you’re the first one out of the gate, you’re having conversations with the director about the sets about the coloring and the atmosphere and environment. That gets designed, and then the costume designer comes on. Then the production designer talks to the director about how the costumes will live in this world. Ryan had particular ideas about how costumes and my job is to take those ideas and figure out how to compose them in this atmosphere. So I start doing research, from tribes around Africa, historical information, what people look like now, Afro-futurism, Afro-Punk, and I organize them in a way that communicates what I think speaks of this world and is what all of our collective ideas represent, as well as my own. Then hair and makeup come to the table and usually they are a little panicked because on a film like this they may only have a few months of prep to create tattooing and scarification, it’s important for me to share my ideas and my work with them and bring them up to the point of where our conversations have been so that they don’t feel like they have to go back and have the same conversations or ask the same questions over and over again. Our sharing involved on this project them coming to my office, which was completely littered with images. You could sit at the break table for hours before you even talk to me and just absorb the world of Wakanda. They bring their cell phones and take pictures of what they see because i’ve already done the work of sorting so if I’m going to say one set is the royal family, one is the Jabari tribe..they are all laid out so all they have to do is drink it all in to know what direction i’m going in with color and textures and costumes and they also get to walk through the workshop and see how things are coming along and see what we’re working on. We are working closely with them. Visual effects are less involved with that part but they’re connected. The FX supervision Jeff in this case was active every day on set and he and his team are looking at the way things are lined up but for our collaboration, he would say, “ if there’s something you don’t like, let me know, and we’ll fix it!” so I love visual effects! Also they scanned every background person, every costume, they scanned the costumes on the background, on the actors, and off. If there was an item that they needed more detail on, they came to our department, and they brought it to wherever their scanners are, and they scanned them. Once they go into post, they can actually craft things, and have all the information that they need.
LC: The look of the film is universally timeless, which I love.
RC: That was intentional. When we think of African representation in films of the past, we could actually date it. You think of the films Shaka Zulu, Coming To America, anything that had to do with the African Diaspora, there’s a date on it. Anything you look at in film history that has futuristic tech, you can date it. I was uncomfortable with wearable tech because once it’s produced, it’s already obsolete. For that reason I didn’t want to create costumes that looked like they would do something. Like you get close to a door and your costume would open the door for you. I didn’t want to do that because it just felt corny to me. There are fashion designers that I have seen throughout the ages that were forward thinkers, and they didn’t have kitch-y gimmicks. A lot of them were Asian designers, like Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, and also the Brits have a good handle on that. I have always loved Rick Owens , and I’m wearing a piece of his right now. Also Gareth Pugh . They were my favorites and my go-to’s. Stella McCartney was doing some things with recycled materials where she made it into fabrics, and I thought those were much more interesting ideas and were timeless and I didn’t want to put a lot of African prints because I thought it was expected. Those prints only live in one region of Africa and they are appropriated and were sent by the Dutch, so it was important for me to create an aesthetic that was timeless and that we can look at this film and it would stay relevant and beautiful and say “hey that was in the 2000s!” When we look at Roots or some of the ones that were produced and we look back we realize we are much better at that now.
LC: I know you do mentor and It’s important to you. Can you speak to that? For example, I love the work Douriean Fletcher did on the jewelry, and I know you brought her on to the film.
RC: I worked hard to get her on that, she was not in the union so she actually worked on the balcony of my house in the back, set her up with a table, then we got her 30 days of work at our craft house, they totally embraced her and guided her on how to do the patterns for the designs so she worked diligently, alone a lot of the time, and hammered away, fired up her torch. I felt like it was nothing she couldn’t do, and what she produced was so well done that was a joy to help a young artist like her to come into this industry and this genre of superhero films.
LC: Now she’s the first jeweler in the costumer’s guild.
RC: it’s thrilling and it’s a triumph and I feel it’s what we are here to do. Not suck up all the attention and think that we’re the superheroes… we really do work with a team.
When I started in the business there was no costume designer that looked like me that I could ask for an internship. It didn’t really even matter if they looked like me, to be honest. I studied (Oscar-Winning costume designer for The English Patient) Ann Roth and loved the way her palettes came together. I just felt like it was my responsibility because I had done some work in the opera and on the stage as an intern and I had some incredible people that supported me in whatever I wanted to do in costume. In opera, I was the only person of color there at the time, I guess it was around 1985 at the Santa Fe opera. I just figured this is a field that people of color probably know very little about. When I get resumes or letters and I have from aspiring costume designers, I have evaluated them. It’s not like it’s an open door policy, and just I’m here to train everyone, but I have trained quite a few who were aspiring and are costume designers now. Rita McGhee is one of them, and it’s something that when I was working with Spike Lee at Forty Acres and a Mule, he was big on internship programs, he’d go into LIU (Long Island University) and find those young filmmakers and when you start a film at Forty Acres you’re going to meet a group of young people that are aspiring. That’s just the landscape there. Coming from working on 12 films with that guy, I too have that same mindset. As they say, EACH ONE TEACH ONE.
See Black Panther in theaters starting Friday, February 16th, and read all about Ruth Carter’s adventures in costuming on her blog, which you should do because it’s fascinating.