Ruth Carter’s Costume Designs Bring ‘Coming 2 America’ and ‘Black Panther’ to Life

The legendary costume designer talks power, beauty, and film

When it comes to representing how Black people dress on the big screen, Ruth E. Carter is unparalleled. Her gift and passion for the craft makes her among the best costume designers to ever do it. Thanks to her hard work, talent, and diligence, we show up — even in our clothing—whether it be the past or the present.

“Ruth Carter is a genius,” comedy icon Eddie Murphy proclaimed via video during the ceremony of the legendary costume designer receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Thursday, February 25. The two legends go way back and, to date, have worked on seven films together, including their current Coming 2 America streaming on Amazon Prime and 2019’s highly acclaimed Dolemite Is My Name.​​

“. . . I’ve never had a wardrobe designer [like Carter] whose clothes actually influence how you play your character — how you walk, how you stand. She really is instrumental in bringing your characters to life,” Murphy continued.

Oprah Winfrey, who worked with the Massachusetts native on Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the Ava DuVernay-directed Selma added that “Ruth holds within her an awareness of cultural knowledge of our history and is able to beautifully weave the two together to create fully formed characters before they even speak a word.”

Carter’s brilliance on the Ryan Coogler-directed superhero blockbuster Black Panther dazzled the world, earning her the Oscar in 2019, making her the first Black costume designer to win the Oscar. Prior to her Oscar win, Carter had been nominated twice before for the Steven Spielberg-directed Amistad and the Spike Lee-directed Malcolm X. Lee actually recruited her into the industry. Before meeting him, Carter, armed with a degree in theater arts from Hampton University, initially worked in theater. His 1988 film School Daze was her first credit as a costume designer.

Ruth Carter posing and kneeling next to her Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
Ruth Carter posing and kneeling next to her Hollywood Walk of Fame star.
Photo courtesy of The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce/O. Del Aguila

Just before Christmas 2020, SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta mounted the exhibition, Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, created in collaboration with Carter herself, honoring her work and impact. The exhibit, on display until September 12, 2021, features garments covering a wide swath of Carter’s career, including Black Panther, Selma, Amistad, The Butler, Malcolm X, and the remake of the groundbreaking miniseries Roots. Garments featured have been worn by Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Oprah, Eddie Murphy, and more. Carter is only the second costume designer, following industry icon Edith Head, to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

ZORA caught up with Carter, who was overwhelmed by the honor, for a few questions and this is what she had to share.

You have an amazing exhibit in Atlanta. Seeing your work was so extraordinary but this is not the totality of it, but the highlights. Please talk about the exhibit.

I’ve been collecting for a long time. There’s a bigger exhibition than that in my storage. But I feel like the storytelling aspect and the afrofuture aspect is something that has been, you know, part of my language as a costume designer, in everything I do. So to walk through that exhibition really does tell the story of, you know, our past, our present, and our future. And it’s kind of a huge story, when you walk through it you see civil rights. And you see, you know, 1970s blaxploitation and then you see Shaft and then you see The Butler and you see Malcolm X. You can really walk through our history in the exhibition.

Photo courtesy of SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film

What place does Coming 2 America have in that history?

It’s definitely a part of the lexicon of American film. The first one was a classic. Comedy in Black cinema is older than dirt. You can go back to Pigmeat Markham and Buck and Bubbles and you can see comedy that played a role in our culture, and Coming to America certainly has cemented itself as part of the Black cinema legacy. So Coming to America 2, hopefully, will be a continuation of the first film. We didn’t want to do a remake. We wanted to take it on from that point to the next. It’s 30 years later and that’s how we kind of approached it, from a modern point of view. It’s 30 years later.

What is ‘Zamundan’ style?

I think Zamundan style is Ankara fabric. It’s bright. It’s forward fashion. It’s immersive. It has a little bit of bling in it. It’s also pride of country and it empowers women. So the Zamundan style really does encompass a worldview as well as the African diaspora, and I hope those representations are really clear in the film.

What do you hope your legacy is?

I hope my legacy tells the story of an artist that cared about her culture, cared about Black people and the representation in cinema, and went about creating images that uplifted the race and inspired generations to come.

What do you think your mom would say?

Well, my mom’s super proud of me. She turns 100 this year. In October. And she’s always been an advocate of me following my dreams, not staying stagnant. I mean she herself in the ’40s got on a train, moved North for better work, alone, as a young high school graduate. So I get my strength and my fortitude from my mom and I’m proud to say that I’m her daughter.

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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