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How ‘Black Panther’ costume designer found inspiration worthy of a superhero

When it comes to movies, we tend to focus on actors and directors. But many other factors help determine whether a film resonates with audiences. In commercial and critical blockbuster “Black Panther,” for example, superhero suits recall actual African heritage. Jeffrey Brown talks to Ruth Carter, the movie’s Oscar-nominated costume designer, about finding inspiration and serving as an example.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, we continue our look at some of this year's Academy Awards nominees.

    When it comes to film, we often spend much of our time talking to actors, writers and directors, but there are so many elements that go into the making of a movie.

    "Black Panther," which was widely praised for its messages, its vision and style, certainly drives that point home.

    A key part of its look comes from Ruth Carter, who is nominated for best costume design.

    Jeffrey Brown traveled to Los Angeles to talk with her about her craft for our new regular series on arts and culture, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    By now, it's well-established: "Black Panther" has been both a box office blockbuster and historically groundbreaking.

  • Letitia Wright:

    Ooh! The entire suit sits within the teeth of the necklace.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And more than half-a-century since Marvel Comics first introduced the fictional African nation of Wakanda, the film featured a new look that has itself become a cultural phenomenon.

    Ruth E. Carter not only helped bring to life the latest iteration of the "Black Panther" suit. She also designed some 1,500 costumes for the film. The goal, she says, was to make fantasy familiar.

  • Ruth Carter:

    We have to really base it on real life in order for people to believe it. It's not a place that we can make so completely a fantasy that it feels like it's a sci-fi or it's a fantastical place that no one could go to.

    We base it on so many rooted ideas and cultural things, that people feel like they can actually buy a ticket and fly to Wakanda.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To that end, Carter researched and found inspiration in the real Africa and its people, such as the Dogon of Mali, the Tuareg in North Africa, the Himba of Namibia.

    The costumes, and the film in general, also celebrate the concept of Afrofuturism, a blending of technology and futuristic themes with black history and culture.

    Carter points to the costume of Ramonda, King T'Challa's mother, as one of her favorites. Both her intricate crown and shoulder mantle were 3-D printed.

  • Ruth Carter:

    We still really want to honor what the fans believe that Wakanda is. And, in that way, it stays really rooted in the superhero realm, in the comic realm, in the fantasy realm.

    But this was an opportunity to take you know the Afrofuture or the aesthetics of African diaspora and infuse it into this culture, and bring it to life in that way.

    The process of creating superhero costumes is very different than tailoring the suit. And so that process was new to me. But as I got into it, I could see that there were lots of things where I could implement my ideas and my art. But it's very intimidating at first.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Intimidating, until you get over it?

  • Ruth Carter:

    Until you get over it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Ruth Carter grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, in an artistic household. She was introduced to drama through after-school programs, and studied theater arts and design in college.

    Now 58, her big break into Hollywood came through Spike Lee, with whom she's worked on many films, including "Malcolm X," which brought the first of her now three Oscar nominations. At the time, she was first African-American to receive a nomination for costume design.

    Among her many other films, Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," Ava DuVernay's "Selma," and Lee Daniels' "The Butler."

  • Ruth Carter:

    This was Oprah's. And this was Cecil Gaines, who was played by Forest Whitaker, who was the butler.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Some of her creations are still housed at the Western Costume Company, a massive shop and warehouse in North Hollywood where we met and talked.

    I'm not sure that many people, myself included, understand your job.

  • Ruth Carter:

    Yes.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Costume designer.

  • Ruth Carter:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    How do you define it?

  • Ruth Carter:

    A costume designer is a storyteller. She tells or he tells stories through wearable art. And it's not only just like buying a shirt and a jacket or creating something original. It's also giving it a little bit more of a story.

    It's just not 2-D. A costume designer's job doesn't end with a photograph or a sketch. There is that part that makes it come alive. And that's molding and shaping and creating a character, composition, color palette. All those things come into play.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is not a field, this is not an industry that's been very inclusive historically.

  • Ruth Carter:

    Right. Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Why is that? What did that mean for you coming up and finding your way?

  • Ruth Carter:

    I guess, as I entered Hollywood, I didn't see very many people like me, even though I looked and researched if there were. And there was maybe one doing television. There was another person who was supervising, but not really in a design capacity.

    And I was really firm that I wanted to be a costume designer once I landed in Hollywood.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Beyond the individual films, Carter says she's felt a larger mission, to help create an authentic portrait of African-Americans.

  • Ruth Carter:

    People think I got into this industry because I like fashion and Dior.

    But it was really you know James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez that told these rich stories that really made me want to get into theater and made me want to be a part of this. And I found that costume design was a way where I could be an artist and a storyteller, and contribute to a medium that I felt had had a great voice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, what does the Oscar nomination mean for you?

  • Ruth Carter:

    I have been reflecting on that quite a bit. It means that I'm an example to a lot of young girls who — wow, I'm getting choked up. Wow.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ruth Carter:

    You know, a lot of young girls who, like me, want this for themselves, this profession, want to get into it, and really kind of don't know how, but are maybe forging their own way.

    I feel like I represent, like, that hope that they can go to the highest level.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Ruth Carter, congratulations to you again. Thanks for talking to us.

  • Ruth Carter:

    Thank you. Thanks so much.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will continue our coverage of the Oscars later this week, hearing from Regina King, star of "If Beale Street Could Talk."

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