When Ruth Carter got a call from her agent about meeting with the team at Marvel Studios to discuss a film called Black Panther, she knew this wouldn’t be like any meeting she’d had before.
As a costume designer, Carter has earned Academy Award nominations for Malcolm X and Amistad. She has lent her talents to films including Selma, The Butler, What’s Love Got to Do With It, and the vast majority of Spike Lee’s joints. Even with such an impressive résumé, Carter says the idea of entering a world as vast and packed with interconnecting mythologies as the Marvel Cinematic Universe was unfathomable.
Black Panther focuses on the rise of T’Challa, king of Wakanda, the most technologically advanced country in the world. (Played by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa/Black Panther first appeared in Captain America: Civil War.) Wakanda is untouched by outsiders, and its wealth stems from an abundance of the incredibly powerful metal vibranium. The battle waged by an arms dealer (Andy Serkis) to get his hands on Wakanda’s natural resource is just the tipping point for a more serious struggle closer to home. It is a massive story with a massive, A-list cast told on a typically massive Marvel scale.
“I met with [director] Ryan Coogler and [producer] Nate Moore, and it felt like an out-of-body experience,” Carter says. “I felt like, am I really the right person for the job? What am I doing here?”
But as they spoke, and Coogler shared a few childhood memories, she started to relax.
“Ryan was sitting across from me, just cool and calm, with a lovely smile on his face, and he said, ‘I was a little boy when Malcolm X came out and I remember going to see that film with my father, and I’m really honored that you came in to interview for this picture,'” Carter recalls. “That just put my guard down. I thought, I can just have a conversation with this guy, aesthetically. I felt close to him and I felt like the Marvel Universe didn’t matter as much as a creative relationship. And once I got the job, I was ecstatic. I felt the same as I felt when I got Malcolm X.”
Initial feelings of similarity aside, working with a company like Marvel proved to be a different experience entirely.
For one, there’s an entire ecosystem of action figures, videos games, and other licensed products that runs parallel to what Marvel Studios puts out. So nailing how characters look is of the utmost importance. It’s a job that’s largely overseen by Marvel’s visual development team, which forced Carter to adjust her typical approach to a film.
“I’m used to coming into a blank slate, but they definitely have a roadmap. So I had to get myself together and get on the road,” she says. “I felt like whatever they gave me to create and make from their model, I was okay with it because there was so much more. We were creating a universe. I was happy to receive four or five characters kind of already in development, and they were open to what I could bring to those sketches.”
“At first it was daunting to be in a place that was so specific,” Carter continues. “You know you’re a contributor, but you just don’t really know how at first because they’re doing stuff that you normally do. And it wasn’t until I got to the end of the journey that I realized my contribution.”
One of her most challenging contributions was outfitting the Dora Milaje, the Black Panther’s elite team of female bodyguards led by Danai Gurira’s Okoye.
Carter’s goal for all the characters was to root the costumes in traditional African attire while making each piece serve the story in a specific way. But she felt the added pressure of getting the Dora Milaje armor right not only because they’re fan favorites from the Black Panther comics, but also because so often the costumes for women in the superhero realm can go very wrong, very quickly.
“We didn’t want them to be these sexy girls walking around with a guy in a bulletproof catsuit. We wanted them to be serious fighters,” Carter says.
For example, Carter had the Dora Milaje’s harnesses fashioned out of hand-tooled leather to evoke the pride and tradition of creating custom armor. She also took particular care with the tabard, a sleeveless tunic common in the Middle Ages that all of the Dora Milaje wear.
“This tabard that falls down the front of the body needs to have some kind of meaning,” Carter says. “Just like the samurai warriors that hand down their armor that stands the test of time for centuries, I felt like there needed to be a little bit of that in the spirit of this costume,” Carter says.
For the color, Carter largely drew her inspiration from the east African tribe called the Maasai. “This brilliant red is a consistent color in Africa. So I upped the ante on the tone,” she says. “I wanted it to be almost like an intimidating red, just intense and saturated.”
What Carter didn’t want, however, was for the costumes to look like “costumes.”
“It’s really difficult sometimes to translate the passion behind what you’re asking for to craftspeople who have done brilliant work on many things but may not really understand completely the African diaspora,” Carter says. “They want to tell you, ‘I can do this because I did the Lion King.’ And you’re thinking, this isn’t like that. This is something that’s super special to this particular story and this particular costume. I need you to understand the culture and the feeling that this needs to evoke when it’s done. It cannot look like a costume. It has to look like a uniform that is worn by women who are fighting. It has to feel real.”
That uncompromising vision has led Carter to what is easily her most celebrated work to date. It’s not just the fact that Black Panther is part of Marvel’s multi-billion-dollar cinematic universe, it’s what the film stands to represent for African-Americans. And for Carter, learning how to work at that Marvel magnitude while staying true her creative instincts was the key to her Black Panther experience.
“You have to believe in yourself. The bigger the film, the more experts come to the foreground and go, ‘You should do this way–this is how we do it here.’ But I believed in myself,” Carter says. “That’s my biggest lesson, is that I do have a voice and I can stand behind it. And as long as I’m supported, I can do some good things with my artistry.”