The ‘Wakanda Forever’ costume designer on her path to Oscar glory
Ruth E. Carter talks building a lasting legacy for the ‘Black Panther’ franchise
Friday 11 November 2022 by Bronwyn Cosgrave
Ruth E. Carter made history in February 2019. Her work on Black Panther saw her become the first African American to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design at the 91st Academy Awards. Known for her meticulous research and diligence to the craft of costume design, Carter had already garnered two further Academy Award nominations in the same category – for Malcolm X and Amistad – before that auspicious win, as well as a 2016 Emmy nomination for the remake of the TV series, Roots.
Here, she talks to Soho House about the mashup of influences – from forward-thinking Dutch couturier Iris Van Herpen to the ancient roots of LatinX culture and Afrofuturism – that went into conceiving the looks for Black Panther’s hotly anticipated sequel, Wakanda Forever.
Bronwyn Cosgrave: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever opens with the funeral of Chadwick Boseman’s beloved character, King T'Challa. Can you tell us about putting that scene together?
Ruth E. Carter: ‘Once we were informed of Chadwick’s passing, director Ryan Coogler became our hero. The ascension ceremony – the handing over of power – was the first thing we shot and is the springboard to the rest of the movie. When you have a loss of the patriarch, you know the matriarch stands in. The mother becomes the mother and the father; the daughter becomes the head of the family. And that is the case in this film, with Queen Ramonda [Angela Bassett] and Shuri [Letitia Wright].
BC: Your relationship with Angela Bassett goes back to the early 1990s when you dressed her to portray Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It? What was it like working with her again?
RC: There’s a shorthand, as I’m welcoming a friend and a sister to my fitting room. Angela Bassett has always been a magnificent actress. Her dedication to her craft has always been clear. On What's Love Got To Do With It? Angela would practice and rehearse endlessly. I still see the dedication but now we like having some fun. We’re not taking ourselves so seriously. You can walk with her from her trailer to the stage door and just have a laugh. I love that about her.
BC: Black Panther brought Afrofuturism to the mainstream. Can you explain how you developed that further in Wakanda Forever?
RC: When I started my career with Spike Lee back in the 1980s, we were always thinking about Afrofuturism. But back then we were calling it Neo Soul or Black Power. The true sense of the term Afrofuturism is African culture infused with technology.
In the case of Wakanda Forever and how we approach Afrofuturism in costume design, we take something that clearly defines the culture – jade, African prints, wood details, leather or raffia – and then infuse it with technology. So, we applied 3D printing to some of these materials. We honour the culture but we also move it forward.
BC: Which contemporary fashion designers did you collaborate with?
RC: I worked with Iris van Herpen, Ozwald Boateng and JJ Valaya, the fashion designer from New Delhi. I worked with Vlisco [the fabric group that designs and distributes fashion fabrics for the West and Central African market] and Adidas. We had a nice group of collaborators.
BC: Last year you received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and you are the first Black woman to win the Best Costume Design Academy Award. How did you handle that level of meteoric success?
RC: After I won the Oscar, I felt like I was shot out of a cannon. I went on a lecture tour. I visited maybe 40 universities over four months. It was incredible to talk to the students who really wanted to know “How did you get started?” and “How did you do it?”
Now, I’m the mentor and the students keep me grounded. And I keep myself very open to sharing what I know. This industry was very closed to a lot of people, especially Black and Brown people. I was a kid from a single-parent household who picked myself up from my bootstraps, had a dream, followed that dream and found that gold statue. I made it and so I want to stand here to say: “You can, too.”
BC: How proud are you of the way Black Panther changed the film industry?
RC: Black Panther reintroduced Brown skin to the mainstream and proved that people would buy tickets. It [instigated] a massive economic shift. People who owned stores that sold African fabrics – all of a sudden, their sales were increasing. So now all of a sudden, there's space to present The Woman King. Would The Woman King have been as accepted in the 1990s? I don’t think so. We were looking at gangsters back then. Not at Black women of power who could take on a nation. Black Panther made it like: “Oh, yeah, let's go see that.”
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is being screened across our Houses