Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter looks back on her most stylish films
The Oscar winner recently earned a star on the Walk of Fame and outfitted the upcoming Coming 2 America.
When Ruth E. Carter won an Oscar for designing the stunning costumes in 2018's Black Panther, "it shot me out of a cannon," she says. Carter had been nominated twice before (for 1992's Malcolm X and 1997's Amistad) in her career, which began in 1988 with Spike Lee's School Daze, but nothing prepared her for the explosion of her historic win as the first Black costume designer to take the Academy's prize.
Now Carter, 60, whose next film, Coming 2 America, hits Amazon Prime Video March 5, has made history again: Last week, she became the first Black costumer (and only the second one ever, after Edith Head) to receive a star on the Walk of Fame. The ultimate sartorial storyteller — fluent in the past, present, and future of style — Carter has more than earned it. "I feel like I have arrived," she says of the honor. "I feel like I have cemented, literally, my legacy in the Hollywood framework." Here are the films that helped her get there.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Now a dozen Spike Lee joints deep, Carter reflects, "I really was nurtured under a true artist." For Lee's masterpiece, their second collaboration, they wanted to avoid the drab "documentary" palette of the city around them: "It was a protest film, and the colors were going to be vibrant." She played with color to mark the different communities in the tableau of the neighborhood and, conveniently, to incorporate bright pieces from sponsor Nike — including one besmirched pair of Air Jordan IVs — affirming Carter's and Lee's indelible contribution to street style.
Malcolm X (1992)
The narrative structure of Malcolm X's life — and of Lee's biopic chronicling it, starring Denzel Washington — inspired Carter to design the costumes in distinct eras, demarcated by the transformative moments of his prison sentence and his pilgrimage to Mecca. When the film opens in the 1940s, "I wanted to make [it] real vibrant and a little bit fantasy, in a way, to really contrast going into prison where all the color was extracted," she says. "I was excited about re-creating the zoot suits."
What's Love Got to Do With It? (1993)
Carter has dressed Angela Bassett five times (including as an African queen in Black Panther and in an enormous wardrobe of pure aspirational '90s cool for How Stella Got Her Groove Back), but most dazzlingly as Tina Turner in Brian Gibson's biopic about the fiery singer. "[It's] wonderful to dress Angela," Carter says. "She really does know how to embody the clothes."
To outfit Steven Spielberg's historical drama, Carter dove into "some of the most beautiful research" she's ever done, immersing herself in the rich art history of the period, which she combined with her study of period dress and the 1839 Amistad slave ship trial. For the scenes of Cinque (Djimon Hounsou) and other captives appearing in court, she had two options: "The route of rags and bare-chested, or the road of dignified and royal," she explains. "I decided to make them more human and more honored, as opposed to what people might think of captives from Africa."
When the guileless heroines (Natalie Desselle and Halle Berry) of Robert Townsend's cult classic struggle to figure out how to use a bidet, slipping all over the bathroom in the process, "the scene created [Berry's] costume," Carter says of the signature orange jumpsuit, now immortalized regularly on Halloween. "When I read it, I was like, 'Well, she's got to be in latex!'"
Black Panther (2018)
Creating the vivid Afrofuturistic wardrobe for Ryan Coogler's Marvel smash brought Carter's first Oscar, third nod, and second film with the late Chadwick Boseman (whose wardrobe she had previously designed for 2017's Marshall). "From the start, he made me laugh," she says, recalling the actor's good-natured reaction to a troublesome early version of this coat. "Oh, he was so much fun to dress. He was a blessing."
Coming 2 America (2021)
Enormously different though they are, Carter did take one lesson with her from Black Panther's Wakanda to Coming 2 America's Zamunda: "I realized people wanted to see a different Africa, maybe something that didn't feel so colonized," she explains. To honor John Landis' 1988 classic while bringing (her Dolemite Is My Name collaborator) Craig Brewer's sequel into the 21st century, she kept Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem mostly in formal national dress, while his American son Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler) puts a modern, international spin on his look. Back in the barbershop, however, "we stayed very close to what it was originally." Some things never go out of style.
Coming 2 America hits Amazon Prime Video March 5.