December 1, 2021

‘I am a storyteller’

Hollywood costume designer tells SUNY Cortland students about her craft

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Ruth Carter of Los Angeles gives a talk Friday night at SUNY about her career as a Hollywood costume designer.

Helping bring the blockbuster film “Black Panther” to life on the screen required blending comic book images, research into African culture and her own creativity, costume designer Ruth E. Carter told a SUNY Cortland audience Friday night.

“There are ways you take culture and infuse it into a superhero,” Carter told about 150 people in the audience of Brown Auditorium in Old Main.

Carter, who received her third Academy Award nomination for her costume design for “Black Panther,” appeared Friday as part of the college’s Black History Month series of events.

She became the first person of African descent to be nominated for the costume design award for her work on “Malcom X” in 1993. She was also nominated for the award in 1998 for her work on “Amistad.”

“As a costume designer, I am a storyteller,” Carter said.

She spoke of the grand scale of “Black Panther,” noting she exceeded her $5 million costume budget, which included six of the title character’s costumes, each costing $500,000.

“I had never done a superhero film before,” Carter said.

The cultural traditions of African tribes and technology were among her inspirations as she designed costumes for characters set in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, she said.

“It was pretty interesting,” Chris Fasce, a freshman physical education major from Hicksville, said after listening to Carter. “She incorporated a lot of culture into it, and she modernized it at the same time.”

Carter spoke about challenges of her job, like adjusting the Black Panther’s costume so the actor could breath and move more easily, and shaving more than 150 blankets that were incorporated into costumes after finding out late in the process that actors would have difficulty moving in them. Another time she used refrigerator magnets to attach an actor’s cape.

In the film “Amistad,” Carter had little to work from in creating costumes for actors portraying slaves who seized a ship carrying them to America and were later tried for crimes.

“We had to develop a depiction of what they looked like,” she said.

With a newspaper account that described the defendants as looking like doves in the courtroom, she dressed them in large white shirts to give a dovelike appearance. Using the ship’s manifest, she created costumes that incorporated the materials that would have been available to them.

Carter said she works with many people as part of the costume design process, including illustrators, computer graphics teams, costume makers, and other members of the film’s creative team.

In response to a question from Sam Kelley, an associate professor of communication studies and Africana studies, Carter explained her career path.

She became involved in theater as a child and continued in college where she created costumes while studying to become a special education teacher. She moved to Los Angeles, where she met the then-unknown film producer, director, writer and actor Spike Lee, who suggested she volunteer at UCLA or USC helping on student film projects.

Amaru Jones was thrilled he would meet Carter after the event with other members of the college’s NAACP chapter. “It’s pretty cool,” he said. “I’m a little nervous.”

“I liked the fact that she’s been around so long and we didn’t know about her,” said Jones, a junior political science major from Huntington, of Carter’s 40- film career. “She is getting the recognition she deserves.”