By Ryan Velez
Marvel’s Black Panther has many rejoicing, not only for the solo big-screen debut for one of the most prominent Black superheroes in fiction but also for the portraying of the futuristic African country of Wakanda. Something like Wakanda is something that may have never appeared on a movie screen, let alone one of the big-budget, mainstream Marvel movies. Black Enterprise recently sat down with someone who has a big role in bringing this to life: costume designer Ruth Carter.
In the first part of the interview, Carter discussed the rise of her career. She explains that she first “discovered costume design as a career path while attending Hampton University. But costume designing was a summary of my experiences. My mom was a counselor for the city; she would stop in the street and talk to people who had all types of problems. Back then it was embarrassing but her empathy for people gave me permission to open my eyes and see people for all of their complexities. Having had that as a young person coupled with going to college and majoring in theatre, I could read a script about a person and see a version of how they might look like. Ultimately, I was groomed to be a storyteller at a young age.”
Carter also shared a bit of her mindset when it comes to taking the words in the script and translating it into a costumer. “First, I read through the scenes of the scripts. I get into the words and the characters. I laugh and cry with it. This helps me determine when to be pronounced. For instance, if the scene is Harlem 1940s, and Thurgood Marshall is sitting with his wife, and Langston Hughes walks in, I look up Langston Hughes in the 1940s. Then I look for great photographers of that era—I discover Teenie Harris, an accomplished black photographer. I review his body of work and notice he was photographing people candidly. But these pictures were in black and white so I go to the original collections and they give me a direct path to the tones and brightness and dullness of saturation or desaturated of colors that will create a 1940s landscape.”
Carter mentions that there were very few people in this field when she got started, and got much of her early support from unconventional sources, like Spike Lee. “He taught me about buying in multiples. For instance, for a scene where people get into a fight—you might need to buy five of the same shirt because movies shoot out of sequence, so if the actor bloodies or dirties that shirt—that shirt has to stay exactly like it is for the scenes that follow. But if we haven’t shot the scenes that come before it—you need a clean version. Nobody else told me this.”