‘Black Panther,’ ‘Malcolm X’ costumes highlight Heinz History Center exhibit

September 27, 2018
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One of the costumes from the movie "Black Panther" featured in "Heroes & Sheroes: The Art & Influence of Ruth E. Carter in Black Cinema" at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter scheduled a trip to the Department of Corrections in Boston.

She wanted to know more about a man -- Malcolm Little -- who had spent time in a prison there.

That man became known as Malcolm X. His story was one for which Carter would design a costume worn in the 1993 movie “Malcolm X.”

Carter’s costume collection, including items worn in that film, as well as this year’s blockbuster “Black Panther,” is on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. The exhibition -- “Heroes & Sheroes: The Art and Influence of Ruth E. Carter in Black Cinema” -- runs through Dec. 2. It’s being presented by FashionAFRICANA and the history center. There are 75 pieces in the collection.

“They gave me his (Malcolm X) files, and I read what he wrote,” says Carter. “I noticed his penmanship and discovered he wanted to educate himself. He became a Muslim and embraced all people. He was more than a villain.”

Knowing some of the details and history about Malcolm X helped Carter design the perfect look for this character in the film, a biographical epic of the controversial and influential Black Nationalist leader, from his early life and career as a small-time gangster, to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam.

Learning the background of a character is what a true costume designer does. He or she researches the person they are about to outfit because the clothing is more than a costume or piece of material. It’s an essential part of who that character is and how he or she appears to the moviegoers, so as exact a replica as can be made is the goal of designers like Carter.

About Ruth E. Carter

Carter, a Springfield, Mass., native, who lives in Los Angeles, has garnered two Academy Award nominations for best costume design for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1993) and Stephen Spielberg’s “Amistad,” (1998). She holds a bachelor of arts degree from Hampton University, where she majored in theater arts. Carter has worked in the entertainment industry for more tha three decades.

She and Lee have collaborated on a dozen films including “School Daze,” “Do The Right Thing,” “Old Boy,” “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Chiraq” and the aforementioned “Malcolm X.”

Carter’s also worked on “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Black Dynamite” and “Sparkle.”

After completing the film “Marshall,” in 2016, about a landmark case fought by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in 1940, starring Chadwick Boseman, she began designing costumes for “Black Panther.”

This 2-hour, 20-minute film, released in February, grossed $700 million at the domestic box office. It is in the hunt for a Best Picture Oscar, according to film experts.

This Marvel action-adventure movie is about T’Challa, heir to the hidden but advanced kingdom of Wakanda, who must step forward to lead his people into a new future, as well as confront a challenger from his country’s past.

The connection

FashionAFRICANA was established in 2001 by Hazelwood native Demeatria Boccella, and celebrates the beauty and diversity of the African Diaspora through design, dance, music and curated exhibitions. Its programming reflects the vitality of the creative human spirit and has brought to Pittsburgh fashion designers and artists from around the world, including photographer Mario Epanya, model and activist Bethann Hardison and Tony-and Emmy-winning costume designer Paul Tazewell.

“When I see a young girl dressed as one of the ‘Black Panther’ warrior women ... my heart wants to burst,” Carter says at a speech during the opening gala for the exhibit. “My journey continues as I find new ways to give a voice to other important messages and characters whose stories need to be told and to inspire a new generation of heroes and sheroes, filmmakers, storytellers and costume designers to live their Afro future.”

Boccella met Carter through mutual friend Bill Nunn, an actor and Pittsburgh native. Boccella says this exhibit is “an opportunity to celebrate Ruth Carter and for people to hopefully have a great appreciation of her work and her contribution to black cinema.”

“I want visitors to walk away feeling inspired and empowered,” says Boccella. “I want people to see a reflection of themselves. That is really important because when I was young and had aspirations of being a model, there weren’t any African-American models I could look up to. It is really important for folks to learn more about her and her work and to celebrate where she has been in the industry. She has had a tremendous impact. To have the work of an individual such as Ruth Carter here is a blessing to this city.”

“I feel like I want people to walk away knowing what a costume designer is,” says Carter. “People often ask me if I sew or if I studied fashion. We wear clothes every day but we might not know what constitutes a costume. With our costumes for a movie we give people insight and knowledge about the layers and the process a costume designer goes through. We gather all our research and try to conceptualize it for the storytelling aspect of it. We have a responsibility to be accurate.”

A tour of the exhibit is being planned for 2019, with possible stops in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Houston. It will travel to other cities under the name “Dress Code.”


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