Not having met a more dynamic young man since she met Spike Lee 30 years earlier, Ruth E. Carter discusses working with Ryan Coogler, reveals how her research and interaction with the “Black Panther” cast lead her creative process of storytelling through costume design and updates the Well on her journey since we last spoke two years ago.
In 2016, Ruth E. Carter sat down with the Well, coming off the success of the Roots series (History Channel, 2016). She would go on to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Costumes for a Period/Fantasy Series, Limited Series, or Movie for “Roots.”
Now two years later, Ruth discusses her recent journey, the fashion we will see both in the audiences and on screen for “Black Panther,” how and why it has become a visually stimulating cultural phenomenon and how the art of storytelling through costume design for 2018’s most anticipated film, “Black Panther” pushed her to a mental exhaustion she hadn’t encountered before.
The Well: From the moment the first “Black Panther” trailer hit, social media has been full of posts that suggest people are giving real thought to what they will wear to the theater opening weekend. It's pretty uncommon for moviegoers to think through what they will wear to see a movie weeks before seeing it. What about "Black Panther" has left moviegoers so inspired?
REC: I feel that the “Black Panther” trailer struck a nerve. It spoke to what many were needing to express themselves during a tumultuous time today. When the President is saying black people live in *bleep* holes and in the era of Trayvon Martin, we are at a loss for identity. “Black Panther” speaks to our cultural identity and could not have happened at a better time.
The Well: This film was such a massive undertaking. What was step one in your creative process as you began to design looks for the characters? What were your primary influences?
REC: Step one was to convince Ryan Coogler that I was the one for the job. Then the task of learning began. I educated myself on Wakanda by way of the comics. I listened a lot to what Ryan and Hannah (Beachler) had to say. I put it together in my mind that there was a contribution here for me. I was introduced to the panther design by Ryan Meinerding (Character Designer, Concept Artist and Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development). With that there was plenty to learn and to do. We had very little time to pull it off. So, a timeline was put in place to stay on course and on pace.
I began the process of designing for “Black Panther” by studying the ancient tribes of Africa. Ndbelle, Tuareg, Himba, Surma, Suri, Zulu, Tsamai - all which have distinctive characterization. Based on a Wakanda bible that Hannah Beachler created, there were areas of the film that explored traditional and inspired costumes. We had the Warrior Falls and that was heavily costumed in traditional garb. Then we had the Royal Family. That was the concept of Wakanda being a forward thinking highly technologically advanced society. This was the motivation in the ideology of "What does it look like in a place that was not influenced by colonization?" It is also a fantasy and therefore, the Black Panther central character is where everything needed to spin off of, starting with the panther suit itself. Marvel gave me the design for the marvel suit. I designed a texture for the suit based on the Okovango triangle shape. Looking at Africa, this vast resource of creative arts and amazing stories behind the art, I wanted there to be a story in the clothing. I felt that the Okovango triangle would speak to the sacred geometry of the triangle that is seen in so many ways throughout the continent. This pattern became to surface as texture for the suit. And to me it created an appearance that reminded me of the African prints that are usually a collage of patterns.
This concept of storytelling through costume design carried through on all of the costumes of the main characters. I remember when I first met Andy Serkis who plays Klaue, I went into this whole story of what he had be doing all night in the clothes before we see him appear in the scene in them. He agreed!!! I said "Listen, you've been drinking and gambling all night. You're kind of sweaty from all kinds of intense foul play."
The women's costumes in the film have their stories as well. The Dora is a costume that covers the body from head to toe and yet beautifully wraps the female form. I created the uniform with leather and beads and a vibrant color that said, "I am woman. Hear me roar!" The base costume was given to me by Marvel. I gave it its story. The story of Africa - the beaded tabard inspired by Massai, the neck-rings giving them a brilliance that made them like jewelry. The leather harness, crafted like that of the South Africans. I felt their story included that the uniform is an honor to wear.
The Well: What was your collaboration with Ryan Coogler like?
REC: I haven't met a more dynamic young man since meeting Spike Lee 30 years ago. And now this time I am a veteran designer. I'm not starting out. I was extremely proud of his mindset and his unapologetic way in front of the huge MARVEL machine. We ALL followed his leadership. This project is his baby. More specifically, we would both stay up late working in our respective areas. I had sourcing happening all over the world and therefore took calls in the middle of the night. He would stop by my department with his little brother Keenan (his assistant) and we both were pushing through extreme exhaustion. Ryan's first question to me on a relatively early phone calls (like at 8:30am) or before call time (around 4:30am) was "Ruth, did I wake you up????”
The Well: In what ways did this film push you beyond your comfort zone?
REC: I don't believe there ever is a comfort zone. If I'm in a comfort zone I have given up. And I never give up. I welcome the discovery and the challenge.
The Well: What "Blank Panther" costume was your favorite and why?
REC: I can't pick a favorite because they are like my children. But, I loved turning Angela into the Queen of Wakanda because she already is so regal. I knew it would be fun. We 3D printed her hat and her shoulder piece. That was thrilling to me because it was a new technology that I was anxious to try.
The Well: Here is a clip from when we last spoke with you. You mentioned staying motivated by having an opportunity to perfect what you weren't able to perfect on the last project and do something different. Was Black Panther an opportunity to do something you wished you could have done before?
REC: Simply. Yes. I had never done a superhero film. There are many things that were cut from the film that I hope I can bring back…if there is a sequel.
The Well: And I think we would ALL welcome that.