For more than 30 years, Ruth E. Carter has dressed the characters in seminal films about the African-American experience, from “Amistad” and “Selma” to “Love & Basketball” and much of Spike Lee’s oeuvre.
But her work for 2018’s “Black Panther,” which has earned her a third Oscar nomination for best costume design (once again, she could become the first black woman to take home the award), presented her with a unique opportunity to look beyond America, and into the future.
With director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, she crafted a new vision of Africa through Wakanda, a fictional country that leaves the West in the dust in terms of technological and social advancement.
“I knew Marvel comic books and that this super fandom was big, so I was enthusiastic. I was curious,” Carter said. “I thought this has got to be an important film, and it had to be something that was Afrofuturist … I would have to represent images of beauty, forms of beauty, from the African tribal traditions so that African-Americans could understand it; so that (non-black) Americans could understand African-Americans better; so we could start erasing a homogenized version of Africa.”
Her final vision was an unabashedly slick hybrid of traditional garments and motifs mined from across the continent. (She had a massive team of 100 buyers to source pieces for inspiration.) She describes the result as a “quick study of the tribes, the cultures and the traditions of beauty” that different communities used to present themselves.
The Dora Milaje, fierce female warriors led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye, wear handcrafted metal neck rings inspired by those worn by the Southern African Ndebele tribe, and tabards covered in the type of intricate beading that proliferates across the continent. Angela Bassett, as Queen Ramonda, wears 3D-printed versions of a Zulu married woman’s hat as her crown. When undercover in a South Korean casino as the spy Nakia, Lupita Nyong’o wears a striking dress hand-painted with Wakandan text — a nod to kente cloth native to Ghana.
While Carter eschewed the wearable tech that has featured prominently in the comics (“I didn’t want you to look at it 10 years from now — three years from now — and think that looks outdated”) she embraced the bright colors characteristic of the medium — vibrant reds for the Dora Milaje; earth tones for Nyong’o; a remarkable green suit by British designer Ozwald Boateng, who is of Ghanaian descent, for an elder statesman, accessorized with a matching lip disk. The titular Black Panther, T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, stands out in his monochrome suit.
“I think people have their own idea of what modern and futuristic is. Modern and futuristic to some means that you wear black and you’re very simple and you’re very monochrome, but … (I used) color because it was Africa, and Africa uses a lot of color. You see the Maasai tribe in beautiful reds; you see the Turkana tribe in beautiful purple. That’s just a fact of life,” Carter said.
“If (Wakanda is) a melting pot of all of these different cultures, and they’re moving forward with all of their forward thinking and technology, I don’t think that they necessarily leave their cultural colors.”
Since its release last February, the support for “Black Panther” has been mighty. Outside of its seven Academy Award nominations (including a groundbreaking Best Picture nod) and global box office takings totaling $1.347 billion, it’s resonated with black people across the diaspora in a profound way.
Carter was delighted and proud to see theatergoers around the world attending screenings in Wakanda-inspired ensembles. (“African-Americans were doing the best they could, and they were doing a good job, but Africans were like woo! They were showing up!”)
The complex future of African fabric (which isn’t African)
More than anything, she hopes that, after watching “Black Panther,” viewers — especially African-Americans — will come away with a greater appreciation for the beauty that presents itself across the continent and put less stock in the often-negative images of Africa that have been used to shame black people across the diaspora for centuries.
“There’s so much beauty around Africa and it’s so diverse. There are so many things that you don’t know that you probably would be surprised about,” Carter said. “So, to me, it was inspiring to be able to present Africa in so many ways, with different tribes and different color palettes, and use beauty, just plain old beauty, as my guide.”