Ruth E Carter: ‘Nothing is set in stone until the camera starts rolling’

There were a number of historic breakthroughs as a result of Marvel’s blockbusting adventure Black Panther: the highest-grossing film from a black director, the highest-grossing film with a black lead and the first ever black winner for the best costume design Oscar.

The winner was Ruth E Carter, whose major moment of recognition came after a career filled with trailblazing work which is being celebrated in Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, a 40-year retrospective at the Scad Fash Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.

Until 12 September, the exhibition will showcase over 60 costumes from African-inspired Wakandan outfits to designs worn by Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington.

“I define Afrofuturism in a very humanistic way,” said Carter to the Guardian. “How are we able to use technology so we can be a part of what shapes tomorrow? When you can sit for your own purpose, you’re crafting your tomorrow.”

Afrofuturism is many things: an art movement, the term being coined by culture critic Mark Dery in 1993, a philosophy on science that incorporates African culture with technology and an inspiration for creators including music group Sun Ra and author Octavia E Butler.

“When you see a protest march like Black Lives Matter, it’s people being empowered to change their future,” said Carter. “It ties into systemic racism and abolishes that mindset. Afrofuturism is about trying to make a difference for tomorrow, trying to make a change.”

The exhibition features costumes from Selma, Malcolm X and Do the Right Thing, shown alongside sketches, research material and ephemera.

For her Black Panther designs, Carter was influenced by indigenous tribes across the continent, while incorporating African design influences, like neck rings worn by South African Ndebele and textiles from Ghana (she used a sheen, triangle motif on the superhero suit as a nod to the sacred geometry of African patterns).

“The opportunity to infuse the different cultures around Africa was a huge honor,” said Carter. “I felt there were still people who have this backwards mindset that Africa is just one monolithic place, people living in huts with flies on their faces.”

Among the Black Panther costumes on view, there is one worn by Dora Milaje, the tribe of women who served as special forces to Wakanda. The designs included beadwork inspired by the Turkana tribe in Kenya, the Himba tribe in Namibia and South Africa’s Ndebele tribe.

“To go into the tribes and use some of the techniques that they used was a language that we were able to adopt and present in a Marvel film,” she said. “We combined the two in such a way that not only honored Africa but the African diaspora. It gave people something to be proud of to call their own.”

Something she’s loved has been seeing how kids would dress up as Black Panther characters for Halloween. “It empowered children to dress up like their favorite characters because it gave them ownership,” she said. “It’s very powerful what that film could do for people.”

There are also costumes from Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film Selma, as Carter turned Oprah Winfrey into the voting rights activist Annie Lee Cooper. “Being on the set of Selma, I feel like I was witnessing Ava DuVernay embody her own Afrofuturism,” she said. “She is a visionary creator. That is the mindset.”

It’s a testament to the much-overlooked job that costumes designers do, day in, day out, as visual storytellers in their own right – they can bring an audience into a decade, an era, seamlessly, with expert nuance. “There’s a leader, it’s the director,” said Carter. “They’re constantly mulling over how to best project the story. Sometimes they’re big adjustments, other times they’re small adjustments. You have to be in tune with those adjustments.”

She really cut her teeth on the set of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. “When we made that film, we were seeing a future of black people in storytelling,” she said. “It was a forward-thinking idea when we made that film.”

The exhibit features a number of outfits from the film, including a handmade T-shirt that says “Bed Stuy or Die” (Carter says it was painted by a local Brooklyn artist).

“Spike Lee had a clear vision for the film, to support the community,” said Carter. “Brooklyn has always been a hub for small businesses and the African diaspora. We wanted to show that Brooklyn has a strong sense of culture. We brought in a lot of African fabrics and colors that are very saturated, it looks like a mosaic.”

The film was certainly a brighter version than what Brooklyn was like back in the late 80s. “If you look into the real Brooklyn, it was a duller palette, a greyer tone,” she said. “We were creating a painting; a bit of surrealism went into it.”

The exhibit also features a selection of retro 1970s costumes worn by Eddie Murphy for his role in the 2019 film Dolemite Is My Name. The actor calls Carter “the best out there” in terms of costume design.

Carter is working with Murphy again for the comedy sequel Coming 2 America, out in March. “This is African royalty,” said Carter of her work for the film. “We want to honor Africa, we want to honor the first movie and still want it to be modern and fresh.”

The new film will show more of Zamunda, the African kingdom where Prince Akeem, Murphy’s character, comes from. “We didn’t see much of Zamunda, if at all, in the first movie,” said Carter. “We just saw the deity with the royal bat on their throne. Now we get to see more of Zamunda. We were excited about telling that story.”

All the crowns and jewels were 3D-printed, she says. “They were made on the computer, except one,” explains Carter. “One crown from the original movie shows up here, James Earl Jones wore his original crown. For this film, we were all about the opulence of royalty.”

Right now, Carter is in production for Black Panther 2, scheduled for release summer 2022. “I can’t give away anything – I probably wasn’t even supposed to say that much,” she said. “It’s an honor to work on a film like Black Panther 2.”

When she won her Oscar for Black Panther, she hoped it would open the door for more diversity in a field that’s been lacking. “I hope through my example that there is hope and other people can come on in and win an Oscar just like I did,” she said in 2019.

Even after all these years of experience in the wardrobe room, Carter says it boils down to instinct when knowing the right look for a film.

“You never really know,” she laughs. “It feels good and you do what you like and present what you love. It’s a journey, you’re adjusting all the time. Nothing is set in stone until the camera starts rolling.”