By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) in Seattle is currently showcasing one of Hollywood’s top African American costume designers, Ruth E. Carter.
While the average movie-goer may be engulfed in the acting and special effects of a full-length film, it is usually the costumes that help tie everything together. Looking at the work of Carter — who has designed pieces for Black Panther, Malcom X, Selma, and movie legends like Oprah Winfrey, Denzell Washington, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett — it is amazing to see the intricacies that go into her designs that seamlessly fold into the productions she’s been a part of.
Carter, who describes her work as “Afrofuturism”, won an Academy Award for Achievement in Costume Design for Black Panther and made history as the first African American to win in that category.
“Afrofuturism can best be described as African culture and diaspora using technology,” says Carter. “And intertwining it with imagination, self-expression and an entrepreneurial spirit.”
In a career covering more than thirty years in cinema, theater and television, Carter has worked with some of Hollywood’s most renowned directors including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, the late John Singleton, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Cooglar. Her resume includes movies from her early days like ‘Do The Right Thing’, ‘School Daze’ and ‘Malcolm X’.
“My first opportunity was with Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’,” Carter recalls. “I was doing theater and theater at the time was not a big thing in Los Angeles. I was introduced to Spike, and he wasn’t at that time the Spike Lee we know today, he was just out of film school and finished ‘She’s Gotta Have It’ and he taught me how to get film experience.”
“He called me months later and I began ‘School Daze’ with him and that was the beginning of the journey,” says Carter.
Currently on a national tour, Carter is hoping to expand her exhibit beyond the United States.
“Hopefully, this exhibition will become a worldwide tour,” says Carter. “I would love to see this in Nigeria or London, but right now it is national. It has been in three other museum and Seattle is its fourth stop and headed to Chicago next.”
While Carter is the person out front, she admits that costume design is a team effort, and she attributes a lot of her success to all of the people who are working behind the scenes to make her visions come to life.
“I have a big team,” says Carter. “Seamstresses, cutters, tailors, a lot of things are outsourced, a lot of things are made from molds, specialty costumes are built, there is a lot of work that goes on underneath costumes, harnesses that hold the costume to the body, I can sew but that didn’t bring me into storytelling, I love telling the story of people and their lives, I am good at thinking these up.”
Carter also possesses a stellar roster of period movies, historical movies like ‘Amistad’ directed by Steven Spielberg and the latest version of ‘Roots’. Carter’s designs are attributed to her due diligence, research and her need to be authentic. Authenticity fuels Carters work bringing the time period of a movie such as ‘Amistad’ to life.
“[Developing costumes for a historical movie] is a slow and patient process which cannot be rushed,” says Carter. “Reading about a time period, speaking to historians, studying the way the mind thought and the body moved and learning innovative or ancient design techniques this all enhances the costume.”
Having her exhibit showcased in Seattle was not by accident. For Carter, Seattle was a stop that had to be on the schedule, as she had previously been to the city and fell in love with the museum during her stay.
“I was here, I wanna say, in the early 90s,” says Carter. “I was doing a show here in Seattle and my hotel was near MoPop and I could hear Jimi Hendrix’s guitar songs coming from the museum and I was like wow, MoPop has a fantastic museum, that was thing was more than the Space Needle it was MoPop.”
“For my exhibition to land here for me is like a full circle moment,” added Carter. “Actually, some of my artistry pales in comparison to the other exhibits in this museum but because I’m here, this is a landing spot that I’ve earned, and it is something I am proud of. It is an honor to bring these gifts here for Seattle to enjoy and see up close.”