Marvel’s upcoming film “Black Panther” and its star-studded, all-Black cast is expected to be a smash hit, and in celebration of the new movie, the Smithsonian African Museum of Art welcomed veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter over the weekend for an intimate discussion on her role in and vision for the film.
“The idea was to present a new model for a vision of Afrofuturism,” Carter said during the Saturday, Feb. 10 event. “I had to make this Black Panther costume come to life. From designing the texture of the fabric all the way to lacing the entire suit with vibranium — this sacred metal only found in Wakanda. … There’s this sacred geometry when you look at the continent of Africa. There’s a triangle that’s used throughout the continent and all other types of forms. So we took a tiny triangle and we printed on the fabric. So when you get up close, and you will, you’ll see that little triangle throughout.
“That overall patterning throughout the suit —with or without the Black Panther’s helmet on — became the king’s clothes in a way, so not only is he a superhero, but he is also this African king,” she said. “And that was one of my major contributions to the film.”
Each design and pattern has a significant cultural meaning and took from all over the continent from Kenya, to Mali, to Nigeria, to Burkina Faso, all the way to South Africa.
Carter and production mates flew to Nelson Mandela’s home country in order to get permission to use the traditional Lesotho designs.
“That’s what’s so great about this project,” she said. “You should be able to say you’re from Wakanda, you’re part of … the Turkana tribe,” Carter said. “That’s the beauty of what this film can do for you. You should be able to pick it apart and say, ‘I’m gonna find out more about myself.”’
Though producing the first design of the Black Panther’s costume took approximately $500,000 from Marvel’s budget, Carter says it was very important to her to do the royalty of Africa justice.
“The major concept that I want people to take away from this film is that we can fall in love with Africa,” she said. “When you see ‘The Samurai,’ you really see and feel the strength of those people. In ‘Black Panther,’ there are the female warriors known as the Dora Milaje who are ranked as Wakanda’s most powerful fighting force. When I created them, I kept them fully clothed, they are bald and they are fierce. They are strong and so when you see them, I want you to see and feel the same things that you did with ‘The Samurai.’
“When the Dora Milaje train their daughters to take their places, I want people to really understand these women’s ability to pass that same strength along,” Carter said. “Wakanda is not literally a real place, but once people reconnect with their roots, they will realize that the concept of Wakanda resides in all of us.”