Ruth E. Carter’s name may not be familiar to many moviegoers, but the costumes she’s designed are. A Springfield native, she’s the Academy Award-winning costume designer behind “Black Panther” (2018) and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022). Carter, 63, was the first Black woman to win an Oscar in that category.
She’s designed costumes for 12 Spike Lee movies, starting with her first screen credit, “School Daze” (1988), and most recently “Chi-Raq” (2015). Carter also did the first season of “Yellowstone” (2018) and has worked with directors as different as Steven Spielberg (“Amistad,” 1997) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” 2014).
A new book, “The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from ‘Do the Right Thing’ to ‘Black Panther’” (Chronicle Books), pays tribute to the designer and her handiwork.
To study one of her sketches for “Wakanda Forever” is to marvel at how varied the costumes are yet also how visually coherent. So much of the flavor of the two “Black Panther” movies comes from Carter’s vision of the characters’ attire: how what they wear conveys to the audience who they are.
Wakanda isn’t the only imaginary African kingdom Carter has had dealings with. Between the two “Black Panther” films, there was “Coming 2 America” (2021), with Eddie Murphy as the King of Zamunda.
Carter had already worked with Murphy, and quite memorably, on “Dolemite Is My Name” (2019). You could argue that the robes and regalia she designed for Wakandan and Zamundan royals are less fantastical than the get-ups she created for Murphy in the role of Blaxploitation star Rudy Ray Moore. This is ‘70s excess at its most excessive, and you get the sense that Carter was having even more fun making the movie than Murphy was, and that’s saying a lot.
At its best, costume is character. It’s also context. Carter’s designs provide a shorthand for the viewer seeking to appreciate the extraordinary transformation of the title character of Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992). Much more than two decades separate the looking-sharp zoot suits worn by young Malcolm Little in ‘40s Boston from the almost-funereal dark suits he wears as a Black Muslim leader. With each, Carter honors both period authenticity and the heightened realism that informs Denzel Washington’s performance.
Malcolm was murdered just weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Selma. The costumes in DuVernay’s film make for an intriguing compare-and-contrast with those in the later portions of Lee’s biopic. Both are a study in how to honor emotional truth without disregarding historical accuracy.
With all due respect to the bravura world-creation of Wakanda, what is likely Carter’s single most effective achievement is so simple and casual as to seem to have come straight from a uniform-supply warehouse. It’s the shirt worn by Mookie, the pizza delivery man played by Lee, in “Do the Right Thing” (1989).
Mookie’s more often seen wearing a Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers baseball jersey. But what he wears in the movie’s climactic scene is that uniform shirt. The visual touches are minimal: a bit of green and red piping (the colors of the Italian flag), “Mookie” in script over the breast pocket, the garment’s fubsy cut. Nothing fancy, because to be fancy would be false. Instead, everything seems just right. Not that you’d notice, since it’s the actor you’re supposed to notice, not the costume.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.