Black Panther's Costume Designer Just Made Oscars History, But She's Been Doing Phenomenal Work For Years

On March 12, 2023, Ruth E. Carter won her second Academy Award for her work on the costumes of "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." It was Carter's second Oscar win after 2018's "Black Panther," making her the first costumer in history to win Academy Awards for a movie and its sequel. Her wins are both well-deserved. Extrapolating from the fictional country originally found in the pages of Marvel Comics, "Wakanda Forever" constructed the clothes and uniforms worn by the citizens of a high-tech central African nation that, thanks to their access to a rare miracle metal and an equally rare super-powered flower, allowed them to advance centuries beyond the rest of the world. Carter designed the clothes for Wakandan royalty, the royal guard, and the country's civilians. She also had to evoke Wakandan funerary rights, as the film opens with the funeral of the original Black Panther. Carter has said that Wakandan dress was based on Maasai and Ndebele clothing, as well as the local fashions of Lesotho.

Additionally, Carter designed the costumes of Talokan, an underwater kingdom extrapolated from Mesoamerican iconography. Talokan was the home of Namor, the Sub-Mariner, a bitter, near-immortal merman who resented those who lived on dry land. The two unique fantasy kingdoms went to war in "Wakanda Forever," and Carter's clothing did a great deal to communicate who each character was and what fantastical society they came from.

As it so happens, though, "Wakanda Forever" was, in fact, Carter's fourth Oscar nomination. In 1992, Carter was nominated for her work in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," and in 1997, she was again nominated for Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." Indeed, Carter's career began in 1988, and she has been a frequent collaborator of Lee's for decades.

The scandal of Malcolm X

Those old enough to have been paying attention to the Academy Awards in 1992 likely recall the historical snub of Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." Despite being an outsize, studio-polished biopic — not to mention an excellent film through and through — "Malcolm X" didn't receive the kinds of Oscar accolades usually reserved for exactly this type of movie (2022's "Elvis" might serve as the usual guideline in this regard). "Malcolm X" was praised by critics, but went unrecognized by the Academy, a move that Lee has said was the result of his being pigeonholed as an "angry young filmmaker." That phrase, of course, is racially loaded, coming especially as it did during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The Academy was only comfortable nominating "Malcolm X" in two categories: Best Actor for Denzel Washington and Best Costumes for Ruth E. Carter. It lost both. Washington has said he was okay with the loss. Carter has not commented.

Carter's first film as a costume designer was on Lee's campus musical "School Daze." Carter's costumes were modern and hip in ways rarely seen on screen up to that point. After recreating bizarre 1970s fashions for Keenan Ivory Wayans' Blaxploitation spoof "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" (Carter may be credited for inventing platform shoes with goldfish living in the lifts), Carter designed the clothes for Lee's "Do the Right Thing" (1989) and "Mo' Better Blues" (1990).

Lee's films are often noted for their forthright messaging and unblinking moral stance, but should just as often be noted for their brisk pace and visual intensity. Lee's films tend to be flashy and colorful, with characters who dress very deliberately in outfits that denote their personalities. Carter designed those costumes, for both the modern day, and for eras past.

Other Lee collaborations

All told, Ruth E. Carter has served as costume designer on 12 of Spike Lee's productions, including "Crooklyn," "Bamboozled," and most recently "Chi-Raq," a modern-day retelling of "Lysistrata" set in the violence-torn streets of Chicago. One can look to each of these films and see a grand variety of challenges when it comes to costuming. Some are set on modern streets and require an element of realism. In the case of "Bamboozled," Carter needed to look into the racist history of minstrel shows and recreate some of the more shameful outfits the Hollywood machine one deemed "acceptable" for Black performers. "Chi-Raq" is based in real-world violence, but also possesses an over-the-top fantasy element — its ancient Greek roots — that lead the actors' outfits into fun extremes.

Additionally, Carter worked with the late John Singleton on four projects, including "Rosewood," the remake of "Shaft," and "Baby Boy."

Carter has operated ably within the Hollywood machine for decades, working on broad, silly comedy like "B*A*P*S," "Dr. Doolittle 2," Disney's "Teen Beach Movie," and "Coming 2 America." As a fantasy designer, Carter accrued some experience prior to working with Ryan Coogler on the "Black Panther" movies. Carter designed the brown coats work by Captain Mal in the "Firefly" film "Serenity," as well as the slick spy wear for Betty Thomas' "I Spy" film. 

Coming up, Carter will be designing the superhero outfits for Yann Demange's "Blade," currently planned to be 36th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a reboot of the 1998 film starring Wesley Snipes. Incidentally, Carter has dressed Snipes in "Mo' Better Blues," "Jungle Fever," "Chi-Raq" and "Dolemite is My Name." 

Not only is Carter breaking Oscar records, but continuing with an impressive body of work that can only grow in size and impressiveness.