Ruth E. Carter is a legend.
For decades, the Oscar-nominated costume designer has provided the looks for many of the biggest films in our history — from every Spike Lee joint since School Daze, to Amistad to Ava DuVernay’s Selma.
Her latest work is Marvel’s Black Panther.
In a conversation with Shadow and Act, Carter talked about the upcoming movie, how fashion is used as an art of protest and much more.
In preparing for Black Panther, Carter told us that while she read comic books growing up, her expertise wasn’t in superheroes. “I used to read Betty Boop, so I had a learning curve,” she joked.
She took on Black Panther recognizing how big of a deal this is. “You know the responsibility to the Black Panther story is massive. I had to understand the world of the Black Panther...vibranium, I really had to climb a steep mountain to understand it all. And once I got a general knowledge of the story of Wakanda, the people, the districts, it took off from there.”
This process included Carter and her team constructing a map of Wakanda. “I had to do Cliffsnotes to help me understand each region of Wakanda that we created. I used New York City as one of my models and said, ‘OK, they’ve got a business district, they have an artist, they have an NYU area, they have an Upper West Side area.’ That was the easiest way for me to get it. I pulled photo references of things from Afropunk and African culture so we could mix modern and traditional.”
For certain garbs of particular tribes, Carter wanted to be true to African tradition.
“I used a lot of red clay color, I used a lot of neck pieces in the traditional garb,” she said. “I recreated a lot of things that were inspired by that and had the colors of that and I made it modern and appealing. It was also very indicative to those areas of Wakanda. Once my map was set, we had a traditional area, and also what it could look like in modern times.”
She continued: “Let's say you were in Wakanda, you may go to the grocery store and they may have a bright red sweater on with orange pants, and then you see another guy and he’s wrapped in a red plaid blanket. Both are accessible. One says ‘we are in the future’ and the other says ‘we respect our past.’ You have to view it like it’s a world, a culture, an unknown place that has thrived. It can’t be one thing, or we’d be done. There would be nothing else.We’d have to keep going back to that one thing without saying these are people that do the same thing we do...but they do it a little better.”
Having directed the numerous Spike Lee films, Selma and most recently, Marshall, Carter is very familiar with designing and studying the “fashion of protest.”
“In a lot of my films, there is a look. From the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X to the zoot suit,” she said. “We have an anarchy to our garb, especially when it comes to organizing. It’s not apples for apples, but there is a fashion — people don’t think its fashion though, it's more so, ‘how do we unite?' And we unite through a commonality. In the '60s, it was the trench coat. In the '40s, it was the zoot suit.”
Today’s united method of protest fashion? The T-shirt. “You wear a T-shirt that has a meaning to it,” she explained, citing Lee’s own outfits. “I worked with Spike Lee for 25 years, and over those 25 years, he has never worn a T-shirt that did not mean something to him. And did not make a statement. And you could not get Spike to wear just anything. You see him on interviews even today and he has the guys kneeling for the national anthem. You really have to look for the story and look for the fashion as it becomes a part of protest and what does that look like, and how does it become a part of that era.”
This also involved unintentional and intentional methods of fashion by black people and how they are perceived by the people outside of the culture.
“Sometimes we want to look a way that lets people know that we are non-conforming. Unfortunately, that message gets misconstrued,” Carter said. “Like a black man in a hoodie. This has sent out a message to certain people that says he is a threat, when that is not necessarily the case. Some of our clothing items that have been worn throughout the years are interpreted and misinterpreted, depending on who's looking at you.”
Of course, this clothing is viewed through a different lens, in our eyes. “I feel that’s something that Black Panther will be for people outside of the African diaspora. It’s gonna help them understand us a little better. Our culture is our blueprint. We relate to certain things very intensely — and sometimes that comes from our past. I’ve really always looked at things differently in terms of relating to people, but now when the masses see the Black Panther movie, they’ll see black culture a bit differently.Maybe we’re giving them a point of reference. Seeing somebody sagging or wearing a hoodie or displaying their African roots won’t be so strange anymore.”
Another part of this concept is using this film to show that black culture is not monolithic.
“One Africa. One place. Dirt and grass huts. Uneducated. Savage. These are words Carter uses to describe how many see Africa. “We’re trying to let you see that it is multifaceted, many cultures, a force to be reckoned with,” she said.
On the United States and the African diaspora, we’re not just one country with one mindset. Carter pinpoints this beautifully.
“It’s about time that this country opened its eyes to many cultures and their diversity and their beauty and give them back their history and embrace it. It should never have been a ‘melting pot’ and melt away everyone’s culture from Native Americans to African-Americans,” she said. “It should have always been a place where you can come and be where you are. That’s what was stripped away from Americans that came to or were brought to this country as the land of the free. It wasn’t free. They were stripped of their identity. It's about time the country led the way of embracing our difference and not look at everything outside of this country as different or dumb.”
Because of how our country was established, we are still facing the negative impacts right now. This is why Carter said Black Panther is so important, because it shows a black hero when he need one most and reminds black kids everywhere that we matter.
“The founding fathers enacted laws that are still in place today, and it is killing our young men. We could use the Black Panther right now. Sometimes, I find myself fantasizing about the Black Panther swooping down on some of this police brutality. I think we kind of need that spirit. I think we need a hero in our hearts because the intensity of everything going on runs so deep and it can be so discouraging. It has discouraged us prior to now. We want to assimilate. We want to not be ‘too black’ at work. We’re trying not to rock the boat. We were kind of in this oppressed state where we made it acceptable to speak in a different vernacular and be like someone else, but kind of exacerbated the fact that we could relate to the fact that they didn't like us. We created a subculture of people not wanting to be called black...but it’s OK. I think about that, and how Black Panther and the Dora Milaje and how for children it will give us pride.”
Black Panther releases nationwide on February 16.
Trey Mangum is the lead editor of Shadow & Act. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org & follow him on Twitter @TreyMangum.