Atlanta honors Ruth E. Carter, first Black woman to receive two Oscars

The costume designer and part-time Atlanta resident to receive Living Legend Award.
Ruth E. Carter poses with the award for best costume design for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Ruth E. Carter poses with the award for best costume design for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, March 12, 2023, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Ruth E. Carter is cut from a different cloth.

On the night of March 12, 2023, the costume designer responsible for creating the regal, Afrofuturistic attire for Marvel’s “Black Panther” in 2018 and its 2022 sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” became the first Black woman to receive two Academy Awards. The fifth Black person overall to earn multiple Oscars in its 95-year history, she paid homage to her “superhero” mother, Mabel V. Carter, who died at age 101 a week before the ceremony, and “Black Panther” lead actor Chadwick Boseman, who succumbed to colon cancer in 2020, during her acceptance speech.

Ruth E. Carter was awarded an Academy Award for Best Costume Design "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever." MARVEL

Credit: MARVEL

icon to expand image

Credit: MARVEL

But taking home those gold statues signaled to Carter that she had a greater mission beyond simply dressing A-list actors and backgrounds for the big screen. The highly sought after costume designer’s commitment to and reputation for immersing herself in extensive research on various eras, selecting the appropriate fabrics, having sincere interpersonal savvy, and paying close attention to detail with each garment fueled the designer to reimagine herself as a purveyor of African American history and culture for cinema.

“Our history — Black history — has had a very interesting journey,” Carter said, previously earning Oscar nominations for her designs on 1992′s “Malcolm X” and “Amistad” five years later. “Our history was stripped from us, and now here I stand glad and proud to be breaking this ground for our culture.”

“There have been so many other triumphs in our lives that we’ve not been able to celebrate or recognize because they were erased, so now this will never be erased,” Carter continues. “This is for us to hold dear and be a source of inspiration for the next generation who will go on to be the first at something else.”

Ruth E. Carter is among the three panelists for the United Way of Greater Atlanta's Women's Leadership Breakfast on May 4, 2023 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
Courtesy of James Anthony/crowdMGMT

Credit: James Anthony

icon to expand image

Credit: James Anthony

Carter is being presented with this year’s Living Legend Award at the 17th annual National Black Arts Festival Fine Art + Fashion fundraiser for youth arts education on April 20 at Atlanta History Center. The Emmy nominee is joining Atlanta Dream co-owner/vice president Renee Montgomery and fab’rik founder Dana Spinola to lend some words of encouragement as a panelist for the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Women’s Leadership Breakfast at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on May 4.

Born and raised in Springfield, Massachussetts, the creative visionary behind memorable looks for “The Five Heartbeats,” “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Selma,” “B.A.P.S.,” “Rosewood,” “Dolemite is My Name,” and even the “Seinfeld” pilot episode now splits her time between Los Angeles and Atlanta. She worked on her very first feature film, Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” in the Atlanta University Center. The “Black Panther” franchise was filmed at Trilith Studios while “Coming 2 America” went into production at rapper Rick Ross’ massive estate in Fayetteville.

Samuel L. Jackson, from left, Ruth E. Carter and Spike Lee arrive at the 7th Annual ICON MANN Pre-Oscar Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP)

Credit: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

icon to expand image

Credit: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

Collaborating with Lee, a Morehouse Man, on 14 films total, Carter decided to move to Atlanta while she was gearing up for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The conceptual artist’s office and workshop now sit on three floors at the soundstage named for Lee at Tyler Perry Studios.

“My journey has been all over this country, but Atlanta has become a real place of comfort for me, and I feel like I’m at home here,” said Carter, also the first Black costume designer to land a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2021. “Atlanta folks show me so much love, and they embrace me as a part of their city.

“I’m with people who understand what I’m trying to do. They wear their costumes well, they know what it is, and I don’t have to explain it. We are building a culture for cinema that is a retrospective of what we know in African American culture.”

Spotlight Award honoree Angela Bassett, left, a cast member in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," poses with the film's costume designer Ruth E. Carter at the 25th Costume Designers Guild Awards, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

icon to expand image

Credit: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Carter is releasing her very first coffee table book, “The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther” on May 23. The collection will include anecdotes, sketches, mood boards and photos spanning her three-decade career in more than 70 films.

Writing the book gives the former Santa Fe Opera apprentice a chance to inspire and motivate future designers and creatives from marginalized communities to pursue their dreams. “I’ve always felt a little bit alone,” she said. “This is a book that was necessary to do because there are young girls and boys out there that feel like I did.”

“It shows the journey of somebody who was passionate and let those experiences enhance the artistry. I know there’s artists out there who are pulling themselves up from their bootstraps just to get things done, and they may feel invisible, a little discouraged like I did at times, or like they’re not being recognized. They, too, can win awards for best costume design or whatever it is they’re doing.”

Last February, the Hampton University alumna selected four students from Pensole Lewis College of Business & Design for her Icons in Afrofuture Design Challenge to come up with formal wear and escort her to the NAACP Image Awards activities and the Costume Designers Guild Awards. Carter wants to produce and fundraise future dress challenges at historically Black colleges and universities with fashion and costuming departments like Clark Atlanta, Howard and Hampton with the opportunity to have more Black film and fashion icons wear the students’ creations to various high-profile award shows.

“There’s talent out there that are so far more advanced than I was at their age,” she said. “I just watched them glow, and it made all of that worthwhile. It made going to all of those dog and pony shows where I received awards or (was) honored on the red carpet have so much more meaning. It was incredible.”

Already hard at work on the costumes for her next film in Atlanta, Carter is juggling an extremely hectic, post-Oscar win travel schedule. She actually felt the demand coming after she became a “Jeopardy!” question during Black History Month earlier this year.

Still, Carter appreciates being in the limelight. The “girl who jumped in her Volkswagen Rabbit and drove cross-country after college” is proud she can use costume design as a catalyst for social change and a vehicle to instill pride in future generations of professionals. “I really wanna keep my focus on the things that brought me here,” said Carter, who just celebrated her 63rd birthday this month.

“I’m at the table with Rosa [Parks], Ruby [Dee] and all of the rest. I want to produce more and give back to young artists and filmmakers out there who need my support. I’m mature in my career, and I have reached the level of queendom.”


RUTH E. CARTER APPEARANCES

17th Annual NBAF Fine Art + Fashion

6:30-9:30 p.m. April 20. $500-$25,000. Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Rd. NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, nbaf.org/fine-art-fashion.

United Way of Greater Atlanta’s 2023 Women’s Leadership Breakfast

7:30-9:30 a.m. May 4. $45-$2,500. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 770-916-2852, unitedwayatlanta.org/event/womens-leadership-breakfast.

AWARDS AND NOMINATIONS

Awarded Oscars for best costume design two times:

“Black Panther” (2018)

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022)

Nominated for best costume design four times:

“Malcolm X” (1992)

“Amistad” (1997)

“Black Panther”

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”

Other accolades:

- Nominated for excellence in period film by Costume Designers Guild Awards for “Selma” (2015) and “Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

- Nominated for outstanding period costumes for a limited series by Primetime Emmy Awards for “Roots” (2016)

- Awarded best costume design by Critics’ Choice Movie Awards for “Black Panther” (2018), “Dolemite Is My Name” (2019), and " Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (2022)

- First Black costume designer to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2021)

- Recipient of National Black Arts Festival Fine Art + Fashion Living Legend Award (2023)

About the Author