BOWIE — Academy Award and Emmy nominated costume designer, Ruth Carter, who designed the costumes for “Black Panther” and many other movies over the last 35 years, visited Bowie State University (BSU) to speak to the community and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award from BSU President Aminta Breaux on Sept. 27.
A Hampton University graduate who majored in theater arts, Carter has designed costumes for many movies over her long career such as “Do The Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” “Love and Basketball,” “Selma” and the 2016 reboot of “Roots.”
Currently, she has nine suits from “Black Panther,” costumes from “Selma” and “Sparkle” and Tina Turner’s dress from “What’s Love Got To Do With It” on display in exhibits at the African American Museum and Culture Center in Washington, D.C. and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They will stay until December and then move to other museums.
Carter appeared before a sold-out crowd at BSU’s Fine and Performing Arts Center Recital Hall.
Breaux, along with Chair and Associate Professor of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts Gina Lewis and Visual Communication & Digital Media Arts Associate Professor Tewodross Melchishua Williams, presented Carter with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Breaux emphasized the pride and impact of having Carter at the school as a fellow HBCU alum and inspiration of entrepreneurship for the students in attendance.
“Up to this point in my life I feel like I have always been dedicated to culture and now because of ‘Black Panther’ I’m being recognized and all of my work is now on display to review as my voice,” Carter said. “I feel like I am seeing my own voice as far as being a person who displays Afro-future.”
Carter feels as though Afro-futurism has always been a part of her life. As a kid she celebrated Kwanzaa, she had Swahili classes, read Sonia Sanchez and recited spoken word. It has always been a part of her, and it made sense for her to design for “Black Panther” and the number of other movies she has created for her long career.
In every film she has done, Carter said she thinks there is a piece of her, and a piece of her voice left with it, especially with the popularity of the movie “Black Panther,” which made about $631 million, the most money of any superhero movie in the U.S.
“Black Panther” has allowed that piece of my voice to be heard and hence a lifetime achievement.”
When Carter went to Hampton University, she majored in theater arts, although she originally wanted to be a special education teacher. At the time the theater program at the school had classes on directing and acting but nothing on costume design so she helped to come up with the curriculum.
She graduated in 1984 and went on to do internships in theater. She later went to Los Angeles to continue to work in theater again where she met movie director Spike Lee and her career took off with the movie “School Daze.”
“Most of my inspiration comes from the research that I do,” Carter said. “So if I’m researching African tribes, I’m looking online, I have a huge library at home, so I’m looking at some of my African tribal reference books.
I’m inspired by black culture, African culture, African people and everyday life.”
Moderated by Fashion Design Professor Maggy Francois and Fashion and Lifestyle Blogger Jennifer Jean-Pierre, Carter answered questions about “Black Panther,” her experience as a costume designer and gave advice to students trying to get into the field.
“I major in animation and motion graphics and I feel like all art, in general, is the same,” said BSU student Kaylyn Dawkins who attended the event. “She’s Hollywood royalty coming to BSU, so I was really fangirling. I’m glad she took the time to come speak and share her experiences with us.”
Carter answered questions about her experience working on movies such as the amount of creative freedom she had during the design process, and collaborating with directors and writers.
The audience was very interested in what it was like to work on the costumes for “Black Panther,” and Carter gave tidbits of her own creations put into the costumes such as a little triangular shape as the sacred geometry of Africa. It means the mother, the father and the son, and they put that all over the panther suit to create the texture.
She gave a lot of advice to the students looking to go into costume design, emphasizing the importance of taking chances and her own experiences with sacrificing to get to where she is.
“You can’t look at your career path from my shoulders, unfortunately,” Carter said. “You have to look down your path from where you stand so that means you have to train yourself and you have to blaze your trail so you really do need to study, learn as much as you can and take chances. Go for it.”
Carter also explained the importance of letting go of fear, especially from her own experience of the high expectations of working on “Black Panther” and being the only African American woman to design costumes for a Marvel film.
“I thought it was really good, she made me feel inspired to do more work,” said Arthur Perpall III, another BSU student. “I didn’t know she had done all of those movies. She made me want to work hard. It’s good to see someone at her level stay humble.”
Throughout her presentation, Carter wanted to inspire young people through her experience and show them that achievements such as hers are possible.
“I hope that people become aware that costume design is a viable profession,” Carter said. “It’s not easy to get into the industry as a filmmaker but there are theaters throughout the country, there are costume design stories that they can tell, and I hope that they find the joy that I have found in costume design.”