“People assume that I became a costume designer because I love fashion. But that wasn’t it at all,” Ruth E. Carter said in 2019.
“My heroes were Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez. Playwrights, poets. Those were the designers that inspired me.
“People think I sew. But that’s not really what I do. What I do is I tell stories,” she said.
That quote pops up in the Netflix documentary series “Abstract: The Art of Design,” early in an episode devoted to Carter, and to her decades-long career as a creator of costumes for films and television.
Her declaration is borne out, amply, within “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” an exhibition of her work that opened in Roanoke this week at the Taubman Museum of Art, and which will run through April 3. The show is co-curated by Julia Long, along with Rafael Gomes and Christina Frank, directors with the Savannah College of Art and Design, where the exhibit initially debuted last year.
Seen here, side-by-side, Carter’s “stories” — sets of the clothing and outfits she designed for about 10 films — stand as chapters that form a sizable anthology. The result illustrates the modes and themes she’s followed from the start, and which she has contributed to significant films of the past 40 years, all of which have addressed culture, politics, society and race.
“Do The Right Thing.” “Selma.” “Malcolm X.” “Black Panther.” Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” The 2016 television adaptation of “Roots.” Those and many others are included here.
Viewing the collection as a whole also drives home how consistently Carter has collaborated with trailblazing Black filmmakers — Ava DuVernay, Lee Daniels, Ryan Coogler and her frequent and arguably most important partner, Spike Lee.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, and the show’s mainstream hook of course, is Carter’s Academy Award-winning work for Marvel’s “Black Panther,” the blockbuster that starred Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, king of the fictional East African country of Wakanda, who dons vibranium armor in his efforts to protect his homeland.
It’s admittedly difficult to see the display of the Black Panther costume, standing tall but uninhabited, without also reflecting on the loss it represents. With that character, mass audiences finally got a mega-budget Black superhero, played by the enormously talented Boseman (who in his short career also portrayed Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown), only to see him plucked away suddenly with Boseman’s death from cancer in 2020, at age 43. In a cosmos that was fair and just, we would have gotten many, many more films with both Boseman and that character.
That adjacent tragedy, however, does not undermine the spark of seeing the intricacy of the “Panther” pieces, which Carter created alongside Austrian architect Julia Koerner. From the 3D-printed shoulder mantle worn by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, to the elaborate beading and metalwork of the battle suit worn by Danai Gurira’s General Okoye, they’re a mixture of African influences and comic book-style high-tech, a blend that underscores the exhibit’s subtitle.
But “Black Panther” is just one component of a show spread across three large rooms and 2,000 square feet, and mixing dramas like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with comedies such as “Coming 2 America” and “Dolemite is My Name.”
“What’s nice about the way that this has been designed is you have this film that she’s very well-known for, won the Oscar for, but surrounding it, you have all these other pieces from her career that really show you the range that she’s worked with, as well as the films that you may have forgotten about,” Carter’s personal curator, Julia Long, said earlier this month.
One piece that falls into that category is the bright yellow leisure suit worn by the flamboyant-but-outdated pimp Flyguy in Keenan Ivory Wayan’s 1988 blacksploitation parody “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”
“Sucka” was only Carter’s second film but those who saw it, if they remember nothing else, likely recall her elaborate costumes, specifically Flyguy’s platform shoes, so big and ostentatious that their soles formed miniature aquariums in which actual goldfish swam. A version of the Fly outfit is on-hand in Roanoke, although his pets have been substituted with plastic replicas.
“Ruth really wanted real fish,” Long said, but acknowledged such a touch just wouldn’t have been practical.
Carter’s lengthy partnership with Spike Lee is another significant element of the show.
“It’s interesting because she really shares a career path with Spike,” Long said, and in fact Lee was one of the catalysts that got Carter into filmmaking. He was still a fledgling director when, in 1987, he drafted her to dress the characters in his second feature, “School Daze,” and the pair have since collaborated more than a dozen times.
“Ruth didn’t think she was going to work in film. She worked in traditional theater, she worked in opera. And Spike was really the one who lured her into the film world. And she stayed obviously,” Long said.
“Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design”
Exhibition hours are Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.For tickets and more information, visit www.taubmanmuseum.org.
Carter’s show is the Taubman’s current banner exhibition, but it’s supported by “Fashioning the Future,” which includes work by Micaela Erlanger, E.V. Day, Iris van Herpen, Judith Leiber and more.
Celebrity stylist Erlanger is featured in “All That Glitters: Iconic Jewelry and Hollywood Style,” and her accessories have appeared in films and on red carpets. Erlanger is scheduled to speak at the Taubman at a members-only event on Dec. 14.
Both Carter and Lee have received multiple Academy Award nominations across their careers, ultimately culminating with them each finally winning their first Oscars in the same year, 2019 — Lee for writing the script for “BlacKkKlansman,” and Carter for “Black Panther.”
Her victory made her the first African American to win the Academy award for costume design.
Two of the films Carter made with Lee also appear in the show, most elaborately 1992’s “Malcolm X,” and the striking, colorful zoot suits that figure into the early portions of the biopic of the slain activist and Muslim minister.
Also present are duplications of outfits from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” from 1989, in particular those worn by the hulking, boom-box-toting Radio Raheem, whose fate the film’s story pivots upon, as well as Mookie, the pizza delivery man played by Lee; viewers familiar with that film’s divisive climax will understand why Mookie’s mannequin is depicted standing beside a large metal garbage can.
And while almost every piece in the exhibition is clothing that appeared on camera, those from “Sucka” and “Do the Right Thing” are actually reproductions. The original versions of those garments, last used in the 1980s, have long since been lost.
“At that point, people weren’t saving costumes a lot of the time. Especially for ‘Do the Right Thing.’ I think people just walked home with them,” Long explained, but added: “Ruth has this encyclopedic memory for everything she’s ever made. So putting these back together, everything was very specific. There was a lot of care that went into the recreations.”
Occasional flatscreens, situated around the exhibit, display clips of scenes featuring the various costumes so visitors can actually see how they appeared on film. The show is similarly interspersed with video statements by Carter, who explains some of her processes, and visitors will also be able to access additional information through digital guides available on their personal devices.
“We really tried in this exhibition to capture a little bit of theatricality without the ‘slash bang,’ and stuff jumping out at you and lots of noises,” Long said. “We wanted to have an exhibition feeling, but a lot of that nods to the fact that these are film costumes.”
“It’s history, but it’s also entertainment.”