Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E Carter says superhero films, despite being complicated, are fulfilling as well
Costume designers are storytellers too, says Ruth E Carter, who was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February. The 60-year-old has worked with some of the biggest names in cinema, including Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. Ruth won an Oscar (she was the first black winner) for her fantastic work on Black Panther.
Talking from her living room in Los Angeles, California, Ruth says, “Everything comes from the writing. It takes you on a journey and helps you imagine the world. As far as costume design goes, we have to honour the written word and the imagination it sparks in us. The screenplay gives you the spirit, painting the colours in your mind. When I read a spirited, funny script, I see it in colour. I see what the vibrancy of the film is, and it does influence how big and bold you will be.”
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No actor, Ruth says, comes into a fitting knowing the full picture. “They are a little reluctant to be too opinionated because they want to integrate, to be a part of the composition and not a standout. We talk about the lines that look most attractive, things that will help them portray their character and what feels empowered.”
MCU’s Black Panther featured some signature looks by Ruth, from a stylish take on a lab coat for Shuri (Letitia Wright) to the futuristic interpretation of a Zulu hat for Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and an elegant green designer suit teamed with a lip plate for a river elder.
“The most memorable part for me was the Warrior Falls. I was told over and over again by Ryan Coogler [director] that that was the place where we could show the most African tradition. It was where I could show the Tuareg, the Turkana, and the Masai. I could show all of the majesty of tribal customs and clothes. I did so much research and delved into some of the amazing adornments that tribes from the whole continent used. I took a lot of pride in having clarity on each tribal custom. When we put that team together and I stood on set — that was the greatest moment I think of my whole career.”
Superhero films, Ruth says, are complicated. “They are branded in many ways. There is a lot of expectations from the fans, a lot of detail for the process of making the costumes. You would have a superhero suit that has a muscle sculpt underneath and beadwork or 3D printing… There are lots of processes that go into creating a futuristic film. They are also highly creative, and for a designer it is kind of the dream come true, the utopia.”
On the other hand, Ruth says no film is easy to design for. “When you do a contemporary film, you get a lot of opinions. Everyone comes to you with a strong idea of what they think it should look like. I would say some films are more accessible because maybe you shop more rather than build from scratch. As a designer however, I always try to bring something unique to the table. I always try to build a little something for the character so it helps define them.”
Ruth’s latest assignment is the sequel to Coming to America, Craig Brewer’s Coming 2 America where Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem returns to New York in search of a son he did not know he had.
“I had worked with Craig for Dolomite is my Name. I have also done seven pictures with Eddie. We were in a rhythm, we were already a drama troupe (laughs). When Eddie’s team told me that they wanted me to do Coming 2 America, I first thought that we were doing a remake and I was concerned because the first film was so beloved and it didn’t necessarily need a remake. After I read the script however, I realised that it is 30 years later with a continuation story here and there is a lot that I could do with it. We had the big funeral ceremony to do for King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones). We landed on what we saw in the first film, which was beautiful Ankara fabrics and gorgeous celebratory looks for the men and women.”
On who she enjoyed dressing the most, Ruth says with a laugh, “Oh I had so much fun dressing everyone. Tiana Taylor [she plays Bopoto, General Izzi’s daughter] was special because she was outside of the royal family and we got to play with her dance costume and the chain-mail gown. Shari Headley (Queen Lisa) feels like she stayed still from 30 years ago and has not aged at all. She was a joy to dress in the beautiful gowns. Kiki Layne (Meeka Joffer, Akeem’s and Lisa’s eldest daughter) was also a favourite because of the athleisure wear that we got put on her. She was strong and athletic, and we didn’t shy away from her beauty, form and femininity.”
Edge of tomorrow
The Scad Fash Museum of Fashion + Film, Atlanta is holding a retrospective of Ruth’s work, Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, where 60 costumes from films including Black Panther, Malcolm X and Selma will be on display till September 12.
Ruth describes Afrofuturism as a way of bringing in hard science to culture, the idea of tomorrow, and what things will be or could be like.
“As I put together my exhibition, I started realising that there were many ideas that fall under the sphere of Afro future. When I walk through Roots (TV series) or Amistad I see how the thought behind what people wore and their struggle is realising or being in your Afrofuture. In every era, people are thinking about a better future and how things could progress in a positive way. When I stand in front of Do the Right Thing (1989) I remember Spike Lee realising his Afrofuture. We wanted to see the kinds of images on screen that we were not seeing in cinema. We wanted to address the issues that were surrounding the black community. Ava DuVernay on the set of Selma had a vision for herself and for black culture, and its Afrofuture with voting rights and to remind us about, the marches and sacrifice that people made in order to give us today and tomorrow.”
Coming 2 America is presently streaming on Amazon Prime Video