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Award-winning costume designer speaks about designing costumes for prominent Black films at virtual event

Women’s Initiative and the Student Union Board hosted Ruth E. Carter as a part of their ‘Creating Your Reality’ series

Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter spoke about the film industry and her experience designing costumes for Black casts in movies and TV shows at a virtual event at American University on Oct. 21.

The event, part of the “Creating Your Reality” series hosted by the AU Student Government’s Women’s Initiative and Student Union Board, was moderated by School of Communication professor Sherri Williams. 

Carter, the first Black person to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, has worked on movies such as “Black Panther,” “Malcolm X” and “Selma.”

Carter discussed her role in designing the costumes for Black characters in many different periods throughout history. 

“You can actually see it and smell it and experience history, you know, when you learn more about it,” Carter said. “I just wanted to present history, the history of African Americans, in a way that I felt passionate about, in some of the nuances that I see in people.” 

In one of her most recent works, designing the costumes for Marvel’s “Black Panther,” Carter pulled design ideas from several African tribes.

“I think our aim was to present traditional dress in so many forms,” Carter said. “You know, Africa is not one model within the place. It’s multifaceted and there are different regions.”

Carter referenced her work on Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” while describing the cultural significance of being a designer. 

To create the perfect costume for actor Denzel Washington, Carter and her colleagues traveled to Egypt to recreate Malcolm X’s journey. 

“It was both an experience for me, and an experience that we presented to an audience in a film,” Carter said. “Culturally, those two things fused, because we created the experience that also was dramatic.”

Upon entering the industry to work on Spike Lee’s second film, “School Daze,” she said she was one of the only Black costume designers. Carter said she was often told to shoot for lower-level jobs in the industry, such as a manager or a seamstress, but she pushed to be a designer regardless.

Carter advised students in attendance that she gives to women working in film. 

“You’ll find the filmmakers that you want to associate with. I think that’s important, to find a film family,” Carter said. 

She said that she entered the industry at a very special time when Black filmmakers were on the rise, and in doing that, she found filmmakers whose multiple films she would design for.

Carter reflected on her growth in the industry and her mindset that has led to her unparalleled success. 

“When you can remind yourself that you’re open to learning, and this journey is really about learning,” Carter said.

Carter is currently designing the costumes for the second “Black Panther” movie. Additionally, she is writing a book, “The Art of Ruth E. Carter,” which will be released in summer 2022. The book details her processes and experiences throughout her entire career.

Toward the end of the event, Carter reflected on her days at Hampton College and advised AU students in their education. 

“You should continue to find those avenues that you know to enrich your studies because you'll be out there in the world soon enough with your knowledge with your degree,” Carter said. “And you want to have the most out of this, this time.” 

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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