Every year, Disney World, Steve Harvey and Essence Magazine host 100 high school students, their parents and the media for a weekend of career exploration, encouragement and inspiration. The weekend is called Disney Dreamers Academy. Every year celebrities and professional speakers come in to encourage the students and their parents. Being at Disney World it’s fun for the media too. But inevitably I find that I needed the inspiration from the speakers and celebrities as well.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re profiling four women who have helped shape history and culture in prominent and impactful ways. Today, we’re featuring costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Carter, who has worked on classic films like “Selma,” “Crooklyn,” “Love and Basketball” and many more, shared her journey as one of the first Black women in costume design, overcoming her fears and what she did when half of her team left her before the start of “Black Panther.”
See what she had to say below.
Her start in the business
I started out in education. I come from a legacy of teachers and I wanted to be a special ed teacher. And halfway through college, I changed my major to theater arts. And my mom said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do the news.’ And I thought, ‘Uuhhh…I’m going to do costumes.’ Then when I came out and I was doing backstage work in the theaters, my mom said, ‘You went to four years of college to do laundry?’ And I was like, ‘Eehh you know, I’m still on my path mom.’ My mom was curious about what the heck it was that I had done with my life and my education. But she was patient with me. So, my advice to parents is to be patient. Your kids are going to find their path, they’re going to blaze their trail.
I started in theater so I feel like creatively, art has no color. I read Molière, Shakespeare, I was no special kid, I just wanted to do this bad enough that I didn’t think about color. I looked for people who could show me a direction, no matter who they were, man, woman it didn’t matter. So I would design a lot of things [for shows that weren’t being produced]. And I would read, draw, design and sort of imagine myself as that costume designer.
Once I got to Los Angeles, I met Spike Lee and he was telling me ways that I could get a career, or get experience in film by going to some of the big colleges in L.A. like UFC and UCLA and signing up for film thesis projects. So that’s kind of what I did. So it was a medium that I had to learn. It’s very different from live theater.
There weren’t a lot of Black women costumers designers when I started so I had to carve my own path. And I bounced back and forth between New York and Los Angeles for about ten years, doing Do the Right Thing, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, School Daze, Black Dynamite, B*A*P*S you name it. So, it really is about being persistent.
The fear when she learned she had been tapped to work on “Black Panther”
Well, when I first got the job on Black Panther, I went into the offices of Marvel Studios and I was really intimidated. I thought, ‘Wow, will I be able to do this? I’m glad that I’m getting this opportunity but I’m really scared.’
I had to say, ’They asked me to come here, they asked me to be a part of this. So, there must be something that I can bring to this. So I’m going to take that in, I’m going to sit across from Ryan Coogler and I’m going to have a conversation with him about my ideas. And your ideas are all your own, nobody can take that away from you.
So, now that I have gone through the journey of creating all these costumes for the Black Panther–and there are so many things that we did. Like, the suit itself, it has a triangular pattern on it. I call it the Okavango pattern because I wanted the Black Panther to not only be a superhero, I wanted him to be an African king. When he’s walking around without his helmet on, you can see the patterns, you can feel it’s from Africa. So, going into Marvel and being really intimidated because I’m at Marvel Studios and they have the smartest people with the best ideas and they do all the special effects. I actually brought something to the table. Now that it’s all out, I feel fantastic because I was a part of it and I contributed to it and I got over my fears.
The inspiration and process of creating the various looks we saw on screen.
It’s bringing culture to the modern looks. We shopped all over Africa, we looked for antiques. We understood that everybody cares about where they’re from. Everybody cares about their origin. You ask someone, ‘Oh I’m Italian, I’m Irish. I’m African American.’ But do you really know what that means? Do you really know? So, Black Panther was an opportunity for us to bring African culture to the forefront.
Her team walking out on her before “Black Panther”
My journey is full of confidence. That’s the first thing that I’d like to say to you. Confidence gets you everywhere. And even in the face of everything falling apart, things fall apart, confidence is what will pull you out of it. It helps you to think through your issues, it helps you pull a team together that you know will have your vision. And those are some of the things that happened to me on The Black Panther. We were all packed up and ready to move to Atlanta, where we shot the film, and half of my team quit! Half of my team walked. It wasn’t anything I did. I think Batman/Superman was about to happen and they wanted to go on and do that film. They were not believing in this Black Panther film.
Now, who’s got the last laugh?
How she bounced back from that setback
When I had that coup, I went for a walk. I said, ‘Here is the greatest opportunity of my life, I’m not going to let that slip out from underneath my feet.’ So I went for a walk and the phone rang and it was Victoria Alonso, one of the heads of Marvel. And she said, ‘Hello Ruth, I heard what happened to you and I want to tell you, you’re beautiful, you’re intelligent, you’re smart and guess what? This is your film nobody’s going to take it away from you.’ Somebody telling you that just makes you kind of put your head back up. And then she said, ‘I run a studio and sometimes I walk into my office and I wonder how am I going to get that thing done? And you know what I do? I ask for help.’
So I called people I knew, my friends. I asked for help. That’s the thing that people don’t like to do. They’re afraid that if they ask for help somebody’s going to say you’re not good enough. But you are because you’re smart enough to ask for help from the people that are going to support you. If somebody is not cheering you on, then they don’t need to be on your team.
And after I hung up the phone with Victoria, I turned right back around and I was like, ‘I’m ready for this.’ Now, everything didn’t fall into place, just all beautifully. I was in the trenches trying to put a crew together to get a whole film shipped from Los Angeles to Atlanta. But we did it and look, now we got a billion dollars!