Marvel's "Black Panther" broke box-office records during its four-day opening weekend — more than $242 million in North America — making it the highest grossing February opening of all time. The film, directed by Ryan Coogler, barely beat out last year's debut of "Star Wars: The Last Jedi."
The movie stars Chadwick Boseman in the title role, along with Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown — just to name a few — and prominently features women both on- and off-screen.
Among those women is costume designer Ruth Carter. Over the course of her 30-year career she has designed costumes for more than 40 feature films. She has also earned two Academy Award nominations for costume design, for Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" and Steven Spielberg's "Amistad." She sat down with John Horn to discuss her design process for the clothing of "Black Panther" and constructing costumes that honor and respect the women of Wakanda.
ON HOW HER PRIOR WORK PREPARED HER TO CREATE COSTUMES FOR HEROES:
My work on these biopics that I have done in my past has really helped me to sort of form the world around them. I feel like I have been designing for superheroes all my career. And that has to do with studying the central character, just like the Black Panther, and making decisions about what they would wear in their day-to-day life, what they would wear at home, how they would interact with their community and what that looks like, what their community looks like.
ON HER RESEARCH AND DESIGN PROCESS:
I didn't know a whole lot about the Black Panther. There were so many things that were intimidating to me, I needed to study and learn so I wouldn't be so nervous coming in. I did see that Wakanda was a melding of cultures and, once I looked at some of the imagery in the comics, I could see that comic book illustrators do give you a really strong sense of what the world is like, but they can't really give you details because the [illustration] boxes are so little. So I thought, Wow, this is great? It's a melding of cultures and there's no detail — there's where I come in! And from there I started collecting images of Afro-futurism Afro-punk.
ON CREATING COSTUMES FOR THE WOMEN OF "BLACK PANTHER":
Beauty was in the foreground of my mind all the time. I just needed to always remember that we were going to approach this from a standpoint of beauty and fashion and honoring the women. There's a mother, a queen, a sister, a genius, a warrior, a girlfriend. We represented every form of women you can imagine. And therefore it was important for us to really tell their story and tell it in a way that was true to who we are as women and our complexity.
For the Dora Milaje, the idea was to honor them as warriors and to make them the highest ranking military force in Wakanda. They protect the king. I just remember having a conversation with Ryan [Coogler] and he's explaining to me how they have to have their arms covered, they have to have their vital organs covered, we can't present them in a provocative way, we have to take them serious ... I was so overjoyed to hear this 31-year old black man say: We are honoring women and we are covering them up.
Previously on The Frame, John Horn sat down with two other women who were essential to the production and design of "Black Panther": production designer Hannah Beachler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison.
Morrison has worked behind the scenes on several feature films. She first forged a strong partnership with Coogler while working on "Fruitvale Station." She was unable to shoot his follow up, "Creed," but came onboard for "Black Panther." Last month, Morrison was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on "Mudbound" — the first woman to be recognized as a cinematographer.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF WORKING ON 'BLACK PANTHER':
It's a real testament to Ryan that he got me on "Black Panther." And especially since I hadn't done "Creed," it's a testament to both Ryan and to Marvel. Ryan was the one who said, This is my [director of photography], and wouldn't back down from that. Both Ryan and I feel an incredible amount of pressure. For him, it's a chance to make the movie he wishes he saw as a child — the first black superhero movie. And for me the pressure is, of course, being the first female DP of a superhero film. It's similar. I want to show people that it can be done and to come away with glowing recommendations for the future. Not so much just for me, but so other studios go ahead and hire more female DPs to shoot their $150 million movies.
Beachler was production designer for Barry Jenkins' Oscar-winning film, "Moonlight" and Beyonce's visual album, "Lemonade." She has worked on Don Cheadle's Miles Davis film, "Miles Ahead," and Nicolas Winding Refn's upcoming Amazon detective series, "Too Old to Die Young." She first worked with "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler on 2013's "Fruitvale Station," and then on "Creed."
ON THE RESPONSIBILITY OF CREATING THE WORLD OF WAKANDA:
It's the first time I actually did a world. And it was a lot of research. We went to Africa. I was there for quite some time. Ryan and the producers joined. It was talking to people, taking pictures of everything and connecting with the motherland. And understanding all of the tradition, all the different tribes, how they responded to each other, what things were important in their lives. That was part of building that world and then pushing it all into the future. So for me it was always understanding that Wakanda had been there for 10,000 years and then [imagining], What does it look like now? And there was a lot of discussion because it was supposed to be a place that was never colonized. So what does that look like? It was daunting, because I felt a lot of responsibility to get it right. I hope people could look at it and really feel, like, Okay, yeah, this feels good, this feels right. It doesn't feel false in some way and that this could have been what happened.