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Ruth Carter breaks cultural boundaries beyond Hollywood


Academy Award-winning costume designer

Black History Month honors many stories both famous and obscure. With numerous achievements across the board for Black people, some may get overlooked or not receive their just due for their impact on the culture and the world. The film industry, a resevoir of history where barrier-pushing Black people have.

Actors like Denzel Washington, James Earl Jones, Sammy Davis Jr., and Morgan Freeman to actresses like Viola Davis, Anglea Bassett, Cicely Tyson, and Phylicia Rashad, have etched their names into the history books. But, there have been many people behind the scenes who contribute to on-screen legacies; and pave the way for others to create their own. One of the people paving the way is a two-time Academy Award winner for best costume design, Ruth E. Carter.

Carter, a native of Springfield, Mass., grew up in a single-parent home with eight other siblings. At nine years old, she began attending the Boys & Girls Club. Using her mother’s sewing machine, Carter learned from the organization how to read and design simple patterns. She graduated in 1978 from Technical High School, Springfield in 1982. She matriculated to Virginia’s Hampton Institute, later renamed Hampton University, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts. Carter started getting into costume design while at Hampton, even though there was no costume design curriculum at the time. 

After graduating, Carter returned to her hometown, working as an intern for City Stage’s costume department and then the Santa Fe Opera. In 1986, she moved to Los Angeles to work at the city’s Theater Center. While working there, Carter met director Spike Lee, who hired her for his second film “School Daze,” in 1988 and 1989 for the film “Do the Right Thing.”

“When we made that film, we were seeing a future of black people in storytelling,” she said when speaking about the Do The Right Thing Film. “It was a forward-thinking idea when we made that film.”

“Spike Lee had a clear vision for the film, to support the community,” Carter continued. “Brooklyn has always been a hub for small businesses and the African diaspora. We wanted to show that Brooklyn has a strong sense of culture. We brought in a lot of African fabrics and colors that are very saturated, it looks like a mosaic.”

This dynamic continued in multiple films, like “Mo Better Blues,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Malcolm X.” She also worked with directors like the late John Singleton in “Baby Boy” and Steven Spielberg’s  “Amistad.” No matter the film, big or small, Carter always did her best to design outfits suited to the movie. “I don’t think the process gets more sophisticated the bigger the film gets,” she said. 

“Like if I want a costume in there that we can’t spend a great deal of money on, I have to come up with a way to do it old school. I did a Maasai headdress out of a Pier 1 Imports beaded placemat. I think there is a core aesthetic that you keep and hold onto and that’s what makes you unique.”

In 2018, Carter’s creative process was on full display as she was the costume designer for Marvel’s “Black Panther,” which was directed by Ryan Coolger. Carter drew inspiration from Afrofuturism, a philosophy on science that incorporates African culture with technology and inspiration for creators, including music group Sun Ra and author Octavia E Butler.

“I define Afrofuturism in a very humanistic way,” said Carter to the Guardian. “How are we able to use technology so we can be a part of what shapes tomorrow? When you can sit for your purpose, you’re crafting your tomorrow.”

Carter was influenced by indigenous tribes across the continent while incorporating African design influences, like neck rings worn by South African Ndebele and textiles from Ghana.

“The opportunity to infuse the different cultures around Africa was a huge honor,” said Carter. “I felt there were still people who have this backward mindset that Africa is just one monolithic place, people living in huts with flies on their faces.” Black Panther was a global smash, resulting in the highest-grossing debut of a superhero movie and Black-led movie and director in history. 

Carter received her first Academy Award for her designs in the movie as she perfectly captured the representation of the different tribes in Africa. Carter didn’t stop there, as she received her second Academy Award in 2022 for her designs in Black Panther Wakanda Forever. 

“You never really know,” she laughs. “It feels good, and you do what you like and present what you love. It’s a journey you’re adjusting to all the time. Nothing is set in stone until the camera starts rolling.”