Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter does not need an introduction. Carter made history as the first Black to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design for her stunning creations in the Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther.” She’s nominated again for the beautiful sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
This Oscar nomination is the fourth for Carter in the Best Costume Design category. She is a previous Oscar nominee for the Spike Lee directed “Malcolm X,” 1993; Steven Spielberg’s slave-ship drama “Amistad,” 1997; Ryan Coogler’s directed “Black Panther,” 2019; and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” 2022. With over 60 films and television shows to her credit as a lead costume designer and numerous industry recognitions, Carter said of her first Oscar win; this was a “longtime coming.”
“I’ve been designing heroes and sheroes throughout my career,” Carter said.
And that is a fact. The list of Carter’s triumphant and celebrated works is tremendous. It reads as a who’s who list of Black cinema: “School Daze,” “Roots,” “Selma,” “Coming to America,” “Marshall,” “Rosewood,” “The Butler,” “Sparkle,” “Shaft,” “Love & Basketball,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Black Panther,” and the list goes on and on.
Carter has established herself as a master storyteller through her designs and is incredibly proud of her work in “Wakanda Forever.” “This one is bittersweet because we did lose our friend [the late Actor Chadwick Boseman]. We honored his legacy, and we know there would be no ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’ without him,” Carter said. “I have cherished his memory with this costume display.”
Carter considers “Wakanda Forever” bigger than the first Black Panther, “so many touched this film, and we were bringing in a new culture, and that was scary.” Coogler, the director of both Panther movies, and Carter were intentional in their beautiful display of African culture on film. “I’m always thinking in the direction of how I can shock the system in seeing this collaboration of composition, color, and culture,” she said.
A self-described contributor and listener, Carter says she knew of her added value to both Panther films as she embraced her abilities to lead a costume department in the 1990s. “I embraced my abilities as a costume designer when Spike Lee would go to executive meetings and introduce me as his costume designer. I knew then that I added value to films I touched,” said Carter. “As an artist, I want to be in balance with the story, and seeking balance comes from my background in theater.”
A graduate of an HBCU, Hampton University, a shared alma mater with this writer, Carter initially embarked on a career path as a theater actor. At Hampton, she auditioned for an acting role that didn’t go well, and the director offered her work as the costume designer in the play. “I didn’t know what a costume designer did, but I looked it up,” she recalled.
Carter apprenticed at the Santa Fe Opera before relocating to Los Angeles, continuing her work in the theater. In 1988, director Spike Lee recruited Carter to design costumes for “School Daze” and they worked together on 14 films. Carter thanked Lee first during her Oscar speech, expressing her gratitude and hopes that she had made him proud. From the audience, Lee enthusiastically responded that he was indeed proud – a full circle moment, a destiny fulfilled.
In an industry where Carter admits change happens rapidly – “one day you’re hot, and the next day you’re not” – she is focused on keeping her designs fresh and new. Carter remains inspired by history and the great artistic works of those who have come before her. “I fell in love with Black history and the African Diaspora, and I couldn’t get enough of Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin,” she said.
Carter lives by the example of women leading the way. Reflecting on her journey with colleagues and friends like Angela Bassett, they represented a part of the industry who were taking the front seat at the start of their careers. ” I didn’t want to go into a project where I was sewing and mending. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I did not want to do that,” Carter said.
“I started in independent films and had to find my opportunities.” Carter says she was happy working on films like “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” “B*A*P*S,” “The Five Heart Beats” and “Mo’ Better Blues” and when she received an Oscar nomination for the sensational “Malcolm X.”
Today, the vibrant and uber-talented Ruth E. Carter from Springfield, Massachusetts impacts and influences how others see Black Americans on the big screen.
“I feel good about the decisions I have made for myself,” she declared.
Watch the 95th Academy Awards on Sunday, March 12, on ABC.