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Ruth E. Carter: Designing Black History on Screen

Academy Award winner speaks with AARP about her life and career

spinner image Ruth E. Carter talks with Harriette Cole during the “Real Conversations With AARP” discussion
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter, left, talks with Harriette Cole during the “Real Conversations With AARP” discussion, where Carter talked about making the costumes for some iconic Black films.

Ruth E. Carter is no stranger to costume design. By the time Carter won the Academy Award for best achievement in costume design in 2019 for her work on Marvel’s Black Panther, she had worked with some of the biggest directors in Hollywood — Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg and John Singleton, to name a few.

Carter’s first foray into designing clothes was during her early teens when she found a sewing machine inside a desk. She started making clothes out of items no one wanted anymore stored in an attic. At Hampton University, a historically Black college and university, she received a key to the costume shop after not gaining a part in a production. Carter, 63, says the professor who was directing the play said, “There’s nobody to do the costumes. And I was like, oh, OK. You know, it felt like the consolation prize.” That key opened more than the door to the shop; it opened “a learning lab for me,” Carter says. “It just became my home away from home. And I thought, I know how to sew, I know how to put some garments together. I could do this,” she says during a “Real Conversations With AARP” interview.

VIDEO: “Real Conversations With AARP” Featuring Ruth E. Carter

With a total of four Academy Award nominations for costume design (Malcolm X, Amistad, Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) and two wins (for the Black Panther movies) under her belt, Carter knows what it takes to dress characters of the past and the future, while representing the many aspects of Black history.

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For Amistad, Spielberg’s film about an uprising by African captives aboard a Spanish ship in 1839, Carter says she received the cargo list for the real vessel to know what it was carrying. “I was like, what was on when they overtook the ship? What was the ship carrying? And I saw that it was carrying leather and cotton and all of these materials that I used to create a look for them,” Carter says.

spinner image Florence Kasumba, Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright in "Black Panther."
Ruth E. Carter says the crown for Wakanda’s Queen Ra​monda, played by Angela Bassett, center, had to be computer-generated and have its own technological approach.
Marvel/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Everett Collection

Then for Carter’s award-winning costumes in Black Panther and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, she needed to focus on the future. She says that when she was conceptualizing the crown that would be worn by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, she had to figure out “what would be the perfect crown for the queen that rules in Wakanda, the most forward-thinking, leading” place in Africa. To create a perfect sphere, “you know, it has to be computer-generated,” Carter says. “It has to have its own technologically advanced approach.”

Carter’s Oscar wins brought the coveted gold statuette to Marvel.

spinner image ruth e carter winner of best costume design award for black panther wakanda forever in twenty twenty three
Ruth E. Carter holds her Oscar for best costume design for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” in 2023, when she became the first Black woman to win two Oscars.
Getty Images

“I’m really proud of that,” she says. “I’m the only Black woman to have two. I’m proud to have brought Marvel there. First, it’s groundbreaking. And you know what’s amazing to me? That we’re breaking ground in 2023. And it’s important that we do.”

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The wide-ranging conversation with AARP includes talk about Carter’s early years working in Los Angeles, her collaborations with many famed directors and her 2023 book, The Art of Ruth E Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, From Do the Right Thing to Black Panther.

“I felt like my body of work was different than anybody else’s, and I needed to write some of those stories,” she says in describing why she wrote the book. “I’m like that person you sit next to at lunch, and they never stop talking. You know, I’m talking about everything.”

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