'Black Panther' Costume Designer Ruth Carter On Her Third Oscar Nomination And Why Costumes Should Not Look Like Costumes [Interview]

To read the list of films that costume designer Ruth Carter has worked on in her 30-year-plus career is to move through the history of black cinema in that time period, having worked extensively (in some cases, almost exclusively) with such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton and Lee Daniels. This week, she received her third Oscar nomination for her groundbreaking costume designs in director Ryan Coogler's Black Panther (she was also nominated for Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg's Amistad), and she recently completed costuming work for the Craig Brewer-directed Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.

Carter began her film career working on Lee's School Daze in 1988, and the two worked together on upwards of a dozen features, including Do the Right Thing, Mo' Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Crooklyn, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and Chi-Raq, although oddly not BlackKkKlanman, because she was too busy working on Black Panther. Other career highlights for Carter include costume designs for I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, The Five Heartbeats, What's Love Got to Do with It, The Meteor Man (her first attempt at a superhero costume), Cobb, Money Train, Love & Basketball, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Shaft (2000), Baby Bay, Four Brothers, Black Dynamite, Serenity (yes, the Joss Whedon Firefly movie adaptation), Selma, and Marshall. Some of her most recent designs were seen last year on the Paramount network's series Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, which features a great deal of Western wear, something that was a first for Carter.

/Film walked through Carter's entire career with her during this extensive interview conducted last year during the Chicago International Film Festival, during which she was honored with a tribute to her groundbreaking work. Naturally, we go into great detail about her landmark costumes for Black Panther, but we also cover her longtime collaborations with Spike Lee and discuss the places where she seeks and receives inspiration for her designs.

You probably don't get to do many press tours or junkets the way you did for Black Panther, which came out nine months ago, and you're still talking about it.

Filmmakers have their filmmaking life and they have this huge world around them, this huge bubble, which I'm experiencing with Black Panther, in that the popularity of the film carries you away. Normally, when the film is done, it's done for me. The filmmakers get to enjoy the blossoming of their films; they go on the press tours of their films. So there's this other side of life that they've enjoyed, whereas I go back to my life that I enjoy, that is nice and quiet—me and my dog—and life goes back to normal. But life hasn't gone back to normal since Panther came out [laughs].

The first time most of us saw your work were in the films of Spike Lee. How did you two connect initially, and how has your working relationship evolved over the years? At this point, you must be one of his most trusted allies.

I would hope so. From the moment Spike and I met as filmmakers and collaborators back in 1986 or 1987. I met him before School Daze, maybe a year or so before. Once he told me about it, I started researching it right away. We didn't actually come on payroll for months. It's just what you did as a dumb kid [laughs], working for free, but it helps you hone in your craft. Spike and I first met at Lula Washington Dance Theatre in South Central Los Angeles, where I was a costume designer for this little-known dance company, and it was popular and gained local notoriety. He came to see a performance, and we were all around the same age—he was a young filmmaker, I was a young thespian. I graduated with a theater degree, so I was more interested in that and not film, but we all connected, hung out, and he was talking to me about getting film experience. He kept saying "Go to USC or UCLA, go to their senior film department and sign up for a senior thesis project, and then you'll get experience being on a movie set." Even hearing that, I was like "I respect theater and opera designers; I want to be that." It took me a minute, but I finally did go to USC and worked on a student film on the weekends.

With Black Panther, people are talking a great deal about the use of color in the costumes and how every color means something. But you've been doing that since Do the Right Thing.

It's all about color and pop culture. Especially then, when colleagues and fellow costumers would say to me "You use color." And I was looking at these designers who used grey and beige, and I used to think they were so much more sophisticated than I am. But every time I'd get a project, I'd gravitate toward the color. Everybody has a way of understanding color, and I really worked at my understanding of how to use it effectively. Every director I've worked with has wanted me to use color, from Spike to Keenan Wayans to Robert Townsend, all in my early years. Eventually I grew to understand that that's going to be my aesthetic, and I don't mind it. But it's more difficult to use than when you minimize your palette, and we've done some real experimental things along the way, especially with Spike Lee movies and color. I was able to grow.

Do you prefer costuming for period films, where you actually have reference points in history, versus something modern where you start from scratch?

Modern and period both have a look about them, and it's really about the direction that the script wants to go in. You can take a period piece have a stylistic approach to it. It depends on what the filmmaker wants to do with the color. One isn't more difficult than the other; we always start with a palette, we always do the research, even if it's modern. We are storytellers, so we're always building characters. The breakdown, the layout and the approach is very similar from period to modern. You gather the clothes, perhaps more so with period because you have to dress so many more people—you can't have people come in in their own clothes.

I would love to watch your researching process. That seems like it would be the most fun part of the experience. And your workshop must have stuff covering every square in of wall space.

Oh, yes. Everybody must be inspired. I have to inspire the masses.

Were you too busy doing other things to take part in BlacKkKlansman, because there were so many great opportunities for costume on that film.

I was doing other things, but what's wonderful about 40 Acres [Lee's production company] is that Spike takes people that he's groomed and gives them opportunities. I have blossomed [laughs], so if it gives someone else an opportunity to spread their wings and work on these projects that are a little bit lower budget, that's the goal. I still do film at every budget level, but I'm happy for the opportunities it affords my protégés and other people.

I didn't know you worked on Yellowstone. What was that like for you?

Yes, when I first talked to [co-creator] Taylor Sheridan, he gave me the rundown on Western wear. It's not like you would think. You can't just go to Western costumers and say, "Let me see your Western stuff." There is a modern cowboy today that wears hip-hop clothes as modern as anyone. What I learned about chaps and the different styles—the modern versus the old-school. Belt buckles are like a badge of honor. There is a language to Western wear that I was getting educated on as I went along, and it was wonderful. Also, the Native American community was amazing. Being in Utah and Montana and knowing the difference between the Crow Native American and what they're doing versus what those in the Southwest did. Yellowstone was a great project, and I like that I'm still learning.

During the Black Panther junket, it was fun to see you doing interviews alongside Ryan Coogler and the actors. From the first trailer, that's what people focused on—the costumes. What was the first conversation with Ryan about? Did he have ideas already?

That first conversation was the interview, and the ideas were on me because I was trying to get the job. I had a Dropbox folder full of images. There was no script that was shared with me because it was just an interview. I went into Marvel, which is like the CIA, and I couldn't open my Dropbox because of a firewall. So they managed to get the folder open for me, which caused me to panic a bit. As we were waiting, Ryan said, "I'm really glad you're here."

He must have know who you were.

Yes, but I'd never done a superhero film or a fan of comic book. I wasn't not a fan, but I didn't know a lot of about Black Panther. My brothers had Spider-Man and other superhero comics. I my room, there was Archie and Little Lotta [laughs]. I wanted to be Betty or Veronica, so I had to bone up on the comics. Finally, I got my folder open and I started showing him images. We were in a separate room, in an office inhabited by no one. There was nothing on the walls. And by the end of the presentation, he walked me to his office and some of the same images that were in my folder were also in his office.

So what were some of those images?

Afro-future, African diaspora, beautiful modern images of dark skin and saturated color and gold. Images of Africa and tribal masks, animals—it was Wakanda, basically.

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I know of Afro-futurism as a literary movement that also pops up in music and certainly in comic books. But you were the one who solidified the clothing for that movement. In that realm, what images were your drawling from?

Ruth: There is all of this stuff that existed. Basically, Afro-future lived in the households of any African-American who knew about Kwanzaa or really knew of the poetry of The Last Poets or the poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," that's talking about Afro-future. Some of the core of what Afro-future became today. George Clinton is another example. But Marvel allowed us to put it on the big stage. With that, the African diaspora, which has been alive and well in places like Brooklyn, Oakland—you'll see people conscious of what their connection is to Africa, but not every African-American has that connection. It also speaks to culture, in general. This is about a connection to Africa, but it's really about anyone's connection to their culture. It's about saving culture and saying "We can live harmoniously together." This is part of our Afro-future; it's about understanding each other. So I think that the stage that Black Panther put Afro-future on was more embracing in saying "Check it out. This is a futuristic thing, a fantasy thing, a narrative thing that we haven't been able to embrace all at one time and everybody can get into and enjoy."

There was an event here a couple months ago, I believe it was called Wakandacon...

I've heard of it!

And everyone there was wearing version of the costumes you created.

They also embraced the Afro-punk movement, which is sort of part of Afro-future, but it's got more of an anarchy twist to it. For me creating the looks of Black Panther, I didn't want it to be quite so crazy as Afro-punk. But we embraced it still, but we controlled it.

I know that Ryan Coogler has officially signed on for the Black Panther sequel. How does that bode for you?

I never, ever like to assume anything, especially when it comes to sequels. The director is the leader of the ship. I've read articles with Kevin Feige, where he says he wants to keep the creative team together. But if Ryan thinks everybody should be wearing candy-cane stripes and there's a candy-cane designer out there, so be it [laughs].

This is not the first time you've done a superhero costume. I remember Meteor Man. That first time, did you make some mistakes in your designs that you were able to get right with Black Panther?

I did, a huge amount of mistakes. When I think back to Meteor Man, people were saying things to be about superhero costumes that I did not get. "What are they talking about? We're doing a cape and a body suit." Now I realize what they were talking about. We didn't have the time to do a real super suit.

Marvel has a couple of go-to costumer designers that they've used on other films. They're actually able to match or compliment colors between the films. How much did you meet with them and try to make things synch up look-wise?

Not at all. We were doing something unique and creating a world from scratch. I did not want to be influenced by them and I'm actually glad that I knew nothing about what they were doing, so that ours would standout as something completely different. I had enough people around me saying "I've done a Marvel film. I've been doing Marvel films for many years now, and this is how we make this and that." I was looking at how things had been done and thinking "This is not how Wakanda should be," so I tossed those other ideas away.

I read an interview with you where you said the costumes should not look like costumes. What did you mean by that?

I used to say, "This is not The Lion King, people." [laughs] I had a few people actually say to me "I have some stuff left over from The Lion King." Not interested. Not that The Lion King was a bad thing, but Wakanda needed to feel like a real place and not a stage performance and not something on Hollywood Blvd not a costumer or made-up fantasy. It was fantasy enough, in that it doesn't exist, so now we can contextualize it and use the tribes of Africa that have never been used in this way before and draw inspiration from it and really apply it.

The thing that impresses me still is the look of the Dora Milaje. I feel like you went through variations on that before nailing it down. What were you going for with them?

Marvel has a visual development team, who were working on Dora costumes before I ever came on board. They were talking to Ryan Coogler. So when I came to the table, the Dora were mapped out, but what wasn't mapped out was how we infuse the African culture onto that costume. So I had the framework of "We're covering them up." I did a lot of Dora illustrations too, and a lot of them weren't so covered. I'm basing it on what I'm looking at in the comics. So Ryan Coogler said "We need them to be in uniform, real uniform, make them look like they're real fighters who could protect the king. We don't want to support a narrative that's already out there. We're too deep into stripper culture and cat suits. We don't want to have naked girls protecting him. That's not the image we want." So they were in flat shoes with split toes, covered with long sleeves. The way we engineering the costumes was to have the lines travel around the body in a beautiful way. The red was much more vibrant. We added the beadwork, the leather. We used different tribes around Africa to inspire the materials, the harnessing, all of that.

It doesn't make sense of bodyguards to have any exposed skin.

That's what Ryan was saying. They need to have vital organs covered. But they still look beautiful. The armor was meant to be designed like jewelry. That was one of Ryan requests.

black panther returning to theaters

Whenever T'Challa went out in public outside of Wakanda, he always wore a black tailored suit, but in the mid-credits scene of Black Panther, he's got on a colorful scarf when he speaks to the UN. The scarf was meant to symbolize Wakanda coming out into the open for the first time. Was that your idea?

Yeah, I'm the costume designer and I do come up with many, many ideas. I'm the orchestrator, the conductor, and for T'Challa moving around outside, that called a Nigerian senator suit, where you have to embroidery. We made it even more classy. And in the end, the scarf is by this African designer named Ikiré Jones, and we loved these beautiful scarves and we tied it in the way that Ikiré styles that scarf on his models, and it fit perfectly.

What's it like seeing your designs show up on action figures?

I know! It's crazy. I think that's why some of those things are thought of before I even start, because they have to jump on it so far ahead of time. But I looked at it to see if they featured some of the things I brought into the design are on there, and they are on there. I'm not sure what the timing is like, but it a wonderment me. I don't even get the figures; I have to look for them.

You've designed for Angela Bassett a few times over the years. Was it nice to do so again in Black Panther?

I wanted Ramonda to look like a queen, but Angela already looks like a queen and acts like a queen, so it wasn't hard. But the shape of her costumes needed to be big, and I wanted it to be that when you looked at the Warrior Falls, you knew exactly where the queen was. There were other scenes we shot leading up to Warrior Falls where she's standing on the royal barge that's floating to the falls, and that's a sight to see too with that big costume on.

Both of the sequences at the Falls are basically an entire catalog's worth of clothing for you to design. It's a whole line.

I know, right? When we planned for that, they had done a little model of that cliff, and they had little army men that they'd placed around on it, and Ryan was talking about where the falls would come down and what shots he wanted. He kept saying "This is going to be pageantry. You have to look up at the falls and see pageantry." So that was swirling around in my head for the longest time. When we finally got to prepping that scene, I fit probably 90 percent of the people there, if not 100 percent.

You've done a few films where you have to design clothes for people who are dancing quite a bit, in films like The Five Heartbeats or School Daze or What's Love Got to Do with It. Do you design differently for those occasions to make room for movement?

Oh, yes. For Black Panther too for all of the action. For sure, there's a difference in the design materials, how they flow. You want things to flow even when people are fighting. Dance costumes definitely have a stagey look to them. I love dance and dance costumes. It's my dream to do costumes for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; that would be a huge honor for me. Plus, it looks cool. For Okoye in that red dress, we tested that. We put her on top of a car with stunt people, and they harnessed her to a rig on top of the car, and they drove that car around the parking lot, just to see how the dress would perform, and it was perfect.

Outside of keeping The Lion King influence out of Black Panther, how much of your job was about dispelling stereotypes and cliches?

That was a constant in the forefront of my mind. I had done so much research, and Ryan Coogler and I came from this base of knowledge of African diaspora, but that's not something that everybody comes to the table with, so you're in conversation with people who are excellent craftspeople at what they do, but you can see sometimes that they're naive about what Africa is. You have to guide them and educate them. It was a constant thing.

Talk about the process of working with the hair and makeup team? Do they come in after you've fitted your actors?

Yes, they come during but after I was on. Hair and makeup people like to visit wardrobe because we have our boards up and inspirations everywhere. So they'll come through and take pictures, but they're artists so they come up with their own ideas. Every single production meeting of any type, I carry books, and when Ryan is asking about a certain type of tribe, I can open up a book and put it in the middle of the table for everybody to see exactly what he's talking about. Not everybody had the time to do that, but for Black Panther, I made sure I was always feeding the information.

One of the titles that stands out on your filmography is Serenity. You didn't work on the TV series, so how did Joss Whedon land on your for that job?

I don't know. I interviewed with Joss, and it was a meeting of the minds again. I got the whole set of Firefly episodes and looked at those, and I got the concept. But they wanted more details and expand on what they had built in the framework of the series. There were some characters that stayed exactly the same, but like with Nathan Fillion, we changed his costume. We made him this great Western suede coat, all of his shirts closed with magnets. There was another character who only wore t-shirts, so that didn't change. That was my first sci-fi project, and there was a lot to design for that.

It's a real honor to talk to someone I believe is a future Oscar winner. I'm sure you get sick of people saying that.

No, never [laughs]. If ever there was going to be a contender in my career, this should be one of them. If it wasn't, it would be a shame.

There would be a public outcry, starting with me. Thank you so much for talking, Ruth. And congratulations on your career-achievement award.

Thank you! This is my first career award, and I'm really happy that Chicago came to the table with it. I've been here before. I worked on Chicago Code here, I did Chi-Raq here with Spike. And I've always loved this city. I think film festivals are important, especially for young filmmakers, to get their work seen. How do they get their work seen otherwise? So to be honored for my career achievement is like being held up by other filmmakers that area part of this festival. Nice meeting you.