Black Panther Set Visit Interview: Costume Designer Ruth Carter

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Black Panther Set Visit Interview: Ruth Carter
Posted by Wilson Morales

January 24, 2018

Nearly a year ago, a number of journalists, including Blackfilm.com, traveled down to Atlanta to visit the set of one of the highly anticipated film of 2018, and of Marvel’s comic book films. This is of course, the standalone film for Black Panther starring Chadwick Boseman.

Fans have been eagerly awaiting this film since the character first made his appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Ryan Coogler (“Creed,” “Fruitvale Station”) is directing from a screenplay he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole. Marvel has done great job loading this film with star studded names and newcomers who we will come to know. Besides Boseman, we have Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Florence Kasumba, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Isaach de Bankolé, John Kani, and Sterling K. Brown.

As most of these folks have participated in some highly anticipated projects – everything from Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Marvels own Avengers movie – they didn’t let too much slip. But we did learn a lot about the world of Black Panther and the type of film they are producing.

On set, we watched a scene between Everett K. Ross, T’Challa, and the Dora Milaje, and after piecing our set visit with clips from the trailer we can confirm that scene, in particular, was taking place in South Korea – one of the principal locations. In the scene, Klaue/ Klaw is being held in an interrogation room. Ross it seem to not fully understand the World of Wakanda, but he knows that they have been keeping things from him.

Having done 12 of Spike Lee’s films including School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Chi-Raq, costume designer Ruth Carter has worked with almost every Black director in the business, including Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, John Singleton’s Baby Boy and Four Brothers, Lee Daniels’ ButlerAva DuVernay’s Selma, Kidnap starring Halle, and most recently Reginald Hudlin’s Marshall, which starred Boseman.

She received an Emmy nomination for her wardrobe work on History Channel’s remake of Roots. Carter garnered two Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design for her work on Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), and Amistad (1997) directed by Steven Spielberg.

Here’s what Carter had to say about the clothes and fabric for the film.

Ruth Carter: Hi, everybody. Thank you for inviting me. The Marvel Universe is a brand new frontier for me. It’s been very exciting working with some of the most creative minds I think in the superhero world. We were great collaborators. We have done five months, well my part was five months, of developing some of the characters that everyone knows and loves.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Ryan?

Ruth Carter: Yeah. The director, Ryan Coogler, interviewed me and wanted my concept art in the very beginning of what I thought of the Black Panther and the Wakandan world. Of course, he couldn’t share the script with me, so I went out and read all the comic books and tried to gather up as much as I could. It’s really such a vast world. It’s hard to encapsulize it for a 30 minute interview. I was able to collaborate with some of my ideas about it being a place that is well ahead, futuristic in some ways, but not futuristic place in Africa that’s African but also has a wide stretch of cultural awareness that reaches to the depths of many cultures as well as a beauty. It’s unique amongst itself.

That being said, looking at the futuristic sci-fi just took you too far in one direction. Looking at Afro-centric or Afro-punk or African, there’s all kinds of places in Africa where you can draw your inspiration from. I couldn’t stay in one region of Africa. I couldn’t stay in West Africa and make it Nigerian and Ghanaian and forget that there was east Africa which also had some great images and colors and textures.

There was a Bible that was presented to me that Ryan developed that explained it all, and explained what Wakanda was and explained the different tribes of Wakanda and where they came from. There were pieces of all different points in Africa that were combined. When you researched those real places like the Dogon or the Nigerian culture, you sometimes had a conflict of aesthetics. It was up to me to meld the two cultures together and make it one unique one for our Wakanda and for our look for the costumes. That was my first challenge, learning curve beyond belief.

Once that kind of got into my bones, I was able to really understand from the comic reader’s point of view what Wakanda was. Looking at a lot of images that were painted in the comic strips. You could see people cheering in the streets for example as the Dora Milaje walked down carrying T’Challa on his chair. You kind of got the concept.

I think comics is mainly broad stroke concepts, especially with regards to costumes because the costumes generally don’t really work in the way that real clothes do. The Dora Milaje, they’re walking in the middle of the road with sarong and a tube top and tattoos. They look really great. Mohawk and great little tiny sunglasses. We know that in the stunt world that kind of costume is just not going to work. Also with regards to the Dora Milaje, we wanted to make them have more of a presence, more of a strength of authority. That they did have. They were bad ass chicks. They were protecting the king.

Two, T’Challa being the Black Panther is walking around in this skin suit. We didn’t want the guy in the skin suit walking around with the girls in the bathing suits, so we developed it more as a real warrior might be developed. Real warriors who need their arms protected and need to have shields and armor and weaponry and shoes like they’re really going to go to battle.

It takes time to get there. As women, we all want to be that girl who can fry up the bacon and do all the other stuff. In the end it’s got to feel empowering. Also, with regards to T’Challa, the king, the prince, we take it from his father’s death. He’s no longer king. Now he can be challenged. Others can challenge to take over his throne. He’s the prince. He starts out as our prince.

There’s another element to the story that I can’t tell you about, a spoiler alert, that we wanted to juxtapose two things. Our prince was very kingly. He was very clean, very tailored, what would you expect out of the son of a king. We also looked at a lot of embroidery and dashikis and things that people could relate to. We kind of embellished his kingly clothes with those things so that he’s a king that you know.

It became a process too because we’re in Wakanda. It’s a barefoot culture. Three out of five can walk around barefoot. In this weather, I don’t know. Maybe as we keep shooting, we’ll get to that. We felt that in the typical sense of what happens in a throne room, you have the king and the crown. He’s head of the military. We gave him two things, an open sandal so it felt like Africa, but he also wore a beautiful tailcoat. We gave him a lovely cloak adorned with kinte. Then we gave him military boots and pants. He gives you two messages, that he is princely. He is elegant. He’s also head of the military, and we are in Africa.

With Nakia, which is Lupita, she starts out as a war dog coming from Nigeria. She’s fighting for young Nigerian women who are captured by the mean guys who are militants that capture women and put them in slavery. She starts out very tough. We see her immediately as a fighter. We know her as a fighter. She’s dusty and dirty. She wants to stay in that element. She’s comfortable there. I researched all kinds of fashionable war dogs, all kinds of fashionable, dirty fighters. There’s a lot of good looks out there, so it was hard to pick one. I think what we found for her was really great because it was very much not a part of Wakanda. It was a part of the world around. She travels into Wakanda.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Then she starts to gradually go back to her Wakandan roots, if you would. Her color palate also changes. It starts out as a war dog in army greens and browns and earth tone dirty and army boots. Then as we greet her in other costumes and other scenes, the greens become very clear. It’s more jade, It’s more teal. It’s more put together. Not necessarily put together. She still wears one earring. She still has her tough exterior, but we start seeing a little bit more layers to her origin of being a Wakandan girl, the head, the highest warrior of the river tribe.

Her tribe is the river tribe. She’s the fierce warrior of the river tribe, and her color is green. I have examined every spectrum of green. Green is a wonderful color because like nature, all greens kind of work together well. That was fascinating because she’s such a beautiful tone. She can wear the chartreuse and the bottle green and all those greens so well.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

War dogs had a specific costume in the comics. Was that ever considered?

Ruth Carter: Yes, I looked through a lot of that. It does have a little bit of a paramilitary feel to it. She had that, but because she is a new character to this, I wanted to give her a look that she could follow, that we could follow her in and just add her to the fold. It’s like I said, you examine the comic books. I have a commitment to all of the comic book readers out there who love the series and love the Black Panther. Also I felt obligated to give them something more.

You’re creating these costume designs and creating a society through the costumes while Hannah’s working on the production design and creating the world that these costumes have to play in. How closely did you two work together so that your aesthetics were matching up?

Ruth Carter: I think Hannah and I are kind of like besties right now because we constantly are screaming and jumping up and down and hugging each other. We work very closely. We had a lot of visual development meetings where she showed us sets. I’m happy that we have this vast network at Marvel where I can plug in and open up all of the beautiful set designs that Hannah has designed and be reminded of what they’re going to do.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

A lot of times things are blue screened. When you get to set, it’s a stairway and a blue screen. You’re not necessarily getting fed all the time. Then there are some beautiful beautiful sets that we built here. I think they’re even more beautiful than they are on the page. The color palates, we were very strict about the color palates. There are the river tribe, which is green. There’s the border tribe, which is blue. There’s the panther and the royal palace, which is black and royal purple. We had it real clear. The [japaris 00:14:54] which are wood. We had a very clear direction, and that came from Ryan.

Hannah, her taste level is through the roof. I was constantly becoming aware and still visiting as they’re developing the sets. Seeing what lanterns are going in, the furniture, and still getting a surprise when I get to set. This business is kind of always morphing, and you’re always tweaking when you see things really finely coming together.

You mentioned the cultural exploration when you create a new costume. How do you access the personality for each individual character?

Ruth Carter: That’s a good question. I want to talk to the actors in fittings. A fitting for me is like a therapy session. I’m asking, “What are you doing here? Why are you here? What makes your friendship so special to T’Challa? What makes you guys nemesis? What makes you not get along?” I’m always asking those questions. Part of the subconscious thing that happens after you do a lot of research and you look at so many images, you might look at some image of a voodoo priest. He might have a particular hood or sweater or cape or cloak. When you have that conversation with an actor, some of those images pop into your head, and you go, “Hey, wait. Let me look this up. Let me show you this. We should to that, because that communicates what you just told me.” That’s how we work together. That’s the fun part of my job.

In cases where the costumes have the CGI, what’s that been like for you?

Ruth Carter: That’s really interesting. They put dots on their face. We have a strip of black and white tape. We tape it around their bodies. For the most part what Jeff Bowman, our special effects producer, has told us is just be as creative as you envision it, and let us just take it from there. Don’t try to work in our world. Let us work in your world. He basically asks me if I’m done. They have a booth on set that has cameras and 360 degrees. In five minutes they have every aspect of the costume photographed. Then they take it and they manipulate it in any way they see is proper for what they’re trying to accomplish.

He hasn’t bombarded me. He’s also said, “If there’s something you don’t like or something is bugging you, let me know, and I can help you with that.” I thought, “Great. When does that ever happen? I really wanted her shoes to be black instead of brown.” I don’t think it goes as detailed as that, but pretty much I haven’t been asked to give anyone a blue suit. At most I’ve been asked to give someone a sleeve with a blue band on it so they could remove something.

You talked earlier about the colors for each character and how they morph and change. With the big four, we’re talking Lupita, Danai, Michael and Chadwick. Do you ever give them texture? Earlier Hannah was talking about textures on the production set. Some had glass, earth, sand. 

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Ruth Carter: That’s great. I should have come in here when she was in here. Well, yeah, there’s also textures. River tribe, the river and shells. We didn’t use shells with anyone else unless they were part of the river tribe. That’s Nakia’s tribe. Border tribe is wood and wood grain and strength. We have a character, we made all of his armor out of wood. There’s definitely … It’s all about textures. I worried a little that as we photographed lots of textures, sometimes you get a buzzing or sensation that happens on film with beads. In Africa culture there’s tons of beads, beads everywhere. I have beads everywhere. Those kinds of textures are throughout the film.

Then some new things that we have created because I feel like it’s a mix of old, tradition and new. There’s some foiling that’s happening. There’s some miyake style pleating that’s happening too.

You obviously came into this with costume for Black Panther himself as the hero already set. What can you tell us about what stamp you were able to put as far as putting little tweaks into his costume? What did you like about the original Black Panther costume that you were able to use to help inform you?

Ruth Carter: I like the original Black Panther costume. I liked his helmet and I liked his boots. I liked a lot of things about it. What we wanted to do is take it into a new millennium, a new attitude, a new technology and make it exciting again. Just make it exciting again. Sometimes cultures can come together with superheros. I’ll leave it at that.

In terms of trying to make it newer and more fun, how do you work with Ryan to make sure that the functionality is still justified through the story?

Ruth Carter: Yes. There a lot of meetings and a lot of talking and a lot of show and tells. I’ve always loved show and tells, so that was fun for me. We’d do a lot of prototypes. We would make up an arm. Actually, we made up six arms. We put them on the center of a conference table for one of our big meetings to show what the surface texture could look like, how it could change. What did Superman have under his suit? What different things could we explore? There’s only so far you can go. You can’t all of a sudden have a fur cape. Within the parameters of our superhero, what could we add, and what could we compete with that would raise the bar for him and keep him in the same genre as Superman and Batman and all the other guys, bad ass superhero.

I noticed in the scene that’s being filmed today the costumes that the Wakanda characters are wearing feel a little less visually distinct, like it’s a lot of hoodies and motorcycle jackets. I was wondering if that was intentional because they’re outside of Wakanda. If so, is there a sort of a trick to creating a Wakandan street style that works outside of the country? I could be wrong, but it looked like Nakia was wearing something with-

Ruth Carter: Oh, you saw that. Well, I told you she was from outside of Wakanda. She is in green. Did you notice that? We are in a black site, CIA black site, so they’re kind of undercover. They put on their street clothes that are kind of American to fit in. One is in all green. The other, who is a Dora, is in all read sort of. In their way they put on a disguise, but you’ll see that it’s very much in line. Yeah, that is a motorcycle style jacket. It’s by a designer called Azzedine Alaïa. We totally manipulated it. We dyed it and cut it shorter and manipulated it and made it her own. Yeah. That’s what it is, a CIA black site, so they’re doing a whole little thing. You notice T’Challa has on a sweatshirt hoodie, I forgot all about that, and jeans and black tennis shoes. Very different from what they usually are wearing. Come back to tomorrow and Monday.

Can you talk a little bit about Michael’s character Erik Killmonger?

Ruth Carter: He looks fantastic. He has a specialty costume that he wears today, but I believe he’s only going to be wearing it on set. He’s probably not going to walk around in it. I think that there are some really exciting costumes in this one. You won’t be disappointed.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

What were some of the influences you had for the Dora Milaje? I know you said you wanted it to be functional. What were some of the other ones?

Ruth Carter: When you look at all the tribal work, and you see a lot of red, there’s a common color in African tribal cultures. Red, yellow, white is used quite a bit. We wanted to make sure that the colors themselves were reminiscent of tribal colors that we know. It’s really a primary red and really tomato-y orange. You see that. A lot of plaids in Mali. In some of the Masai tribes you see that a lot. You see the red painted skin you see in the Hemba tribe. You see a lot of the clay work. In the Dora Milaje in the comic strips they are red. That’s pretty much their color. We wanted to stay with that, number one.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Number two is they have a tabard that they wear across the front of their costume. For a very long time I could not figure out why the tabard, why the tabard. It was approved, and I kept wanting to get rid of it, but it just wouldn’t go away. I said, “This tabard that’s kind of a harness.” I call it a harness now. At the beginning I called it a tabard. “It needs to mean something.” If they all wear this tabard, and it doesn’t hold a sword, it doesn’t hold a gun. It doesn’t do anything but kind of stay there in the front. It has to have a meaning, so I beaded it. I put little charms on it for protection because that to me also felt like it was a part of the African culture to have your little talisman on things for protection and good luck and good spirit. There’s three places on the tabard where they wear a little shield, a little amethyst stone and I think it’s a piece of jade.

The rest of it is beaded I wanted the beading to look very earthy, very earthen, and feel like something that could be handed down. You could take your harness and give it to your daughter when she became a Dora Milaje, and you could wear her tabard. I felt like it was one of those kinds of pieces. The rest of it’s tights and a leotard. What can I tell you? A beautiful design, but the harness and the tabard, that was a special piece of the Dora Milaje for me.

How does the Wakandans’ street style reflect their relationship with the outside world or lack thereof?

Ruth Carter: Well, I think it says they’re not in outer space. They still like to wear Nikes that light up and yellow hats and big kookie glasses. They still wear natural hair. They still like to combine prints like everybody else does. I think what it also says is that there’s a different kind of a freedom that they enjoy. That is because they have such a tight culture, the different tribes, they do co-mingle. It’s just a place that has the same kind of rules and regulations that the outside world does. There’s bad kids in the park. There’s a merchant district. There’s a hospital.

I took each district, and I gave it a name that I could relate to and remember easily. I said Step Town was like Brooklyn or NYU. Then I’d say another district was like the Upper West Side where there’s more families and it’s more settled down, but it’s still New York. I used Manhattan basically as my way of remembering how I was going to view different parts of Wakanda. It kind of did make sense. There’s an area that’s mainly medical. I was like, “That’s like UCLA medical area.” You get into some of those communities, and there’s all of these doctors and people walking around. There’s different districts of Wakanda.

Then I said, “How do I make it look unique to us?” in that it’s a barefoot culture. They’re advanced in technology. What are they wearing? Is it corny to have something like lighting up? Our DP, she walks around with her headset on and the light is blinking all the time. I was like, “Wakanda! It’s here every day.” That’s how I feel you can actually, after watching this feel, see things you can point at and say, “That’s Wakanda.” Thank you.

You know we started with the other one. These are shrunk down. I talked to you about how he’s very princely. Some of the colors changed. This was early concept art. I went from that blue to purple. He actually did wear this long skirted thing, but I pared it back a little bit. There are pants underneath it. I kept his sleeves long. This is a vest and a long wool tunic.

This one we did. We started the shoulders on this. We actually changed this many many time. We tested the embroidery. One day all of a sudden this looked Chinese to me. “Oh, it’s the Orient.” Not that that’s bad, but it wasn’t what I really wanted to be. Then we settled on something I think worked out. You see he has the barefoot, but we ended up with sandals.

This is Nakia, how she starts out. She’s undercover, war dog undercover in her green. Through the process of the scene she eventually breaks out, and she fights a militant. Then this is how her custom morphs.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
L to R: Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

You’ll see several versions of the Dora Milaje because I feel like that was a fan favorite. This is the tabard I call now the harness because the way I had it made. It attaches with the two straps around the back. There were several versions of it. Most of it looks like this. This one we didn’t do. I sort of did an Egyptian take on it, but the red was such a strong homage to what was done in the comics, we just decided to go with that. There’s more. We kept doing it over and over again.

You see the bead work. The bead work is in there. You’ll see that in the beginning of the film. You’re going to see this beautiful bead work in the opening. This one we do in the opening minus the shield.

We had a concept in the beginning if you wore hair you were lower rank. If you were bald you were higher rank. Later on I just made them all bald. I liked that idea. I was drawing all kind of hairstyles.

Then the tabard again as you see. I was struggling with it. It was long. It was half. Then eventually it was attached to a harness. We did this kiddie buckle. I call it a kiddie buckle. It ended up being really small and put towards the middle. We had some ideas about doing some weaponry on the head. I think that’s as far as I can go.


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