Johannesburg - Costume designer Ruth E Carter exquisitely translates the costumes she designs into activism, especially in modern American history.
The two-time Oscar nominee – for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in 1992 and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997 – has, for almost three decades, used her creative talent to tell incredibly powerful stories about American culture.
“I was excited that I could take the concept and take it back to Africa, use ancient African culture and light it up – and that’s what was thrilling about working on this film.
“I got so emotionally connected to it that when something was fake or inauthentic in the creation stage, I would back it all the way up to the beginning,” says Carter about being the costume designer on Marvel’s much-anticipated Black Panther, which is scheduled for release on 16 February.
“Working with writers of comics, I saw that Wakanda, where the Black Panther lived, was in Africa. It was a forward-thinking community and they had technology that’s advanced – but the comics were a little dated.
“So, I said comic book artists need to talk to a costume designer and reboot what they’re doing.”
With her sources of inspiration ranging from Kenya’s Maasai tribe to Lesotho’s Basotho, Carter combined high fashion and African tribal notes to create incredible looks for the royal family of Wakanda, including Queen Ramonda (portrayed by Angela Bassett) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright).
“This is the new African diaspora. This is the new way of showing that Africa has a voice and it has a culture that’s very relatable.
“There was a time when no one wanted to relate to Africa, and its beauty was never expressed in a way that was of today and the future.
“It was always a way to express militancy or protest. And I feel like now it’s a celebration of life and colour and culture and artistry.”
While in South Africa over the festive season, the iconic costume designer spent time exploring Johannesburg and Cape Town.
“Johannesburg has more culture. I feel more connected to the people here.
“It feels like the people of Johannesburg are survivors and it excites me to witness how the people communicate speaking different languages,” she says.
“It felt like I was on vacation. Both the cities gave me a cultural experience, but more so in Johannesburg.”
She was inspired to come here for her work on Black Panther, she explains at the City Press office.
They planned to shoot more in South Africa after some shots were done here, with a small crew.
“Some scenes for (miniseries) Roots were shot here and I didn’t get to come as well, so looking at the footage I thought I need to go to South Africa.”
As someone who cares deeply about the portrayal of black culture, Carter says no one has ever done the Black Panther film before.
“It was an aesthetic that hadn’t been presented in a big movie format.
“So we had a golden opportunity, but also a huge responsibility to the culture, to the ancient realism of what it was and why it was, the story behind the things we were using and wanted to use.
“It was important to be very careful about it, but also give it credit and not change it and make it yours.
“Give the Zulu women their hat, and let Ramonda wear it as the queen – but maybe make it in a technology form that creates it in an even more dynamic way,” she explains.
She regards Black Panther as a reawakening of a new school of thought.
“It’s like, ‘hey, wake up!’ This isn’t just about a dashiki. It’s a new day.”
(Photos: Supplied/City Press)