“This is my office,” Ruth E. Carter says during a recent Zoom call, turning her phone to show the space, in her Los Angeles home, where she works. “Lately I’ve been working out of here more than I normally do.”
The room is less cluttered than you might expect—having sketches visible on the wall, Carter says, could violate nondisclosure agreements in the age of videoconferencing—but it’s still clearly the playground of a creative mind. There’s a dress form in one corner waiting to be draped in fabric, and the room is packed with books, objets from Africa, and files full of work by such artists as Romare Bearden and James Van Der Zee to offer inspiration. A just-finished painting Carter made, based on Polaroids from costume fittings for Lee Daniels’s The Butler, sits by her side. (Museums, take note: “I have always wanted to have an exhibition,” she says.)
It all serves to inform the work Carter has been doing since the 1980s, designing costumes for films including Do the Right Thing, Selma, and Black Panther, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 2019—becoming the first Black person to take home the prize. Her most recent project, Coming 2 America, premieres March 5 on Amazon Prime and serves as a perfect example of the mixture of high fashion, historical references, and big screen razzle-dazzle that has made Carter one of Hollywood’s most sought-after artists. (In February she got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)
The movie is a sequel to the 1988 comedy Coming to America, which starred Eddie Murphy as the crown prince of the fictional kingdom of Zamunda who makes his way to New York City to find a bride. This time around, Murphy’s Prince Akeem comes back to the Big Apple to meet his long-lost son—and keep the peace among both his subjects and his family. For Carter it’s a chance to build on the visual story of the original and update it with a modern sensibility.
“I really wanted people to enjoy the movie as a spectacle of shapes and happiness,” Carter says. “If [Black Panther’s] Wakanda is the military center of Africa, then Zamunda is the place where you can explore bright scenes, colorful things, and clothing.” She worked with South African designers to create fabrics for the costumes, traveled to India for opulent embroidery, and thought carefully about what characters might wear depending on their rank and where in the world they are. Royals, like the princess played by KiKi Layne, are dressed in rich creams with tribal accents; outsiders, like Tracy Morgan’s socially ambitious American, get gaudier garments ideal for strivers.
Next up, Carter will be working on the forthcoming Black Panther sequel and attempting to maintain some sense of order in her workshop. “I keep everything put away, because I realize that if I start pulling things out, it will really be a mess in here,” she says. “I try to direct myself and say, ‘Don’t go all over the place,’ because one small picture could be the opening to a whole world of ideas.”
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