The Visual Shero of Afrofuturism

A still-life of accessories from various films that Carter has worked on: the headpiece of Queen Ramonda, in “Black Panther”; cufflinks for Martin Luther King, Jr., in “Selma”; and the dancing shoes worn by Shorty, a character in “Malcolm X,” who was played by Spike Lee. Photographs by Awol Erizku

In film and theatre, costume design is often as important as a setting and script to craft the sense of both character and story. It’s debatable whether non-fiction or fiction is more challenging, but Ruth E. Carter’s work carries the story for either one, with an attention to detail that brings the viewer back into history or forward into new worlds.

Be sure to click through the article for more of Awol Erizku’s dynamic photos, as well as watch the video below for more images and Carter’s own explanation of her work.


Throughout her career, the costume designer for “Black Panther” has created visions of black identity, past and future.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” is a rare thing: a big-budget superhero movie that is unabashedly serious about great clothes. The film’s costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, evoked the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda by melding sci-fi with global fashion history, drawing influence from sources including the color symbolism of the Maasai people, samurai armor, and the jewelry of Ndebele women. She realized her vision with the help of an international team of researchers, buyers, tailors, beaders, and engineers, and by exploring the possibilities of 3-D-printing technology. For her efforts, she has been lauded as one of the essential visual storytellers of Afrofuturism.

It’s only recently that Carter’s work has received this level of public attention—a travelling exhibition of her work, “Heroes & Sheroes,” just opened at the Heinz History Center, in Pittsburgh—but her film career has spanned three decades and sixty film and TV projects. She has been nominated for two Academy Awards and an Emmy. Her achievement is rooted both in an understanding of fashion as a crucial component of the construction of the black self and in meticulous realism and historical research. Her costumes have brought to life such figures from black history as Joseph Cinqué, the West African leader of a slave-ship revolt, played by Djimon Hounsou in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” and Malcolm X, played by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s bio-pic. To transform David Oyelowo into Martin Luther King, Jr., for Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” she made the actor’s shirt collars a little tight—“so that he would have the same fleshy roll that King did,” she told me.

Watch this video on The Scene.

Click here for the full portfolio of photos.


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