Ruth E. Carter Talks the Meanings Behind "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" Costumes
When crafting her vision for the costume design for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," the highly anticipated sequel to 2018's "Black Panther," Ruth E. Carter knew she was going to face formidable challenges.
"We lost our hero. We worked on this film over Zoom during a global pandemic, and we couldn't hug each other to console one another over our grief."
The Academy Award-winning costume designer — whose extensive credits include "School Daze" (1988), "What's Love Got to Do With It" (1993), "Sparkle" (2012), "The Butler" (2013), and "Selma" (2014) — was prepared to bring nine Marvel superheroes to life on screen and elevate the costumes for the returning characters. But she also had a new, unique task ahead of her: introducing the underwater world of Talokan and the Wakandan Navy. Off screen, the cast and crew were also reeling from the tragic death of Chadwick Boseman, who played the titular Black Panther before his death from colon cancer in 2020.
"This film was one of the most complex endeavors," Carter, 62, tells POPSUGAR. "We lost our hero. We worked on this film over Zoom during a global pandemic, and we couldn't hug each other to console one another over our grief."
Carter reveals that Boseman hadn't shared that he was ill, so his "Black Panther" colleagues weren't aware of the pain and suffering he was experiencing. "He continued to film and perform at a peak level, which in turn motivated us all to deliver our art in such meaningful and expansive ways on the second film," she says.
In creating the new world of the Talokan, the film pays tribute to Mayan culture thanks to the Mayavase database, a unique and extensive archive of Mayan knowledge, resources, history, and art. Carter and her team examined the Mayan codices, paintings, artifacts, hieroglyphics, janias figurines, and pottery of Mayan artisans who detailed the meaning and stories in their designs. They also worked with historians who are experts in Mayan archaeology and culture to better understand the language, folklore, and mysticism.
"The first film highlights Afrofuturism, where the costumes are a tribute to Africa and they are reimagined, without the limitations of colonization, by merging traditional and modern to create form and function that manifests as futuristic," Carter says. "This is the same approach we had for the second film when introducing the world of Talokan. We wanted to honor Mayan culture and highlight what is traditional, while having it transcend into a futuristic look for the Talokan that complements their underwater world and adapts to land."
As part of a collaboration with Adidas and Marvel Studios, Carter provided guidance to emerging women and BIPOC designers who created bespoke apparel and footwear for the characters of Shuri (Letitia Wright), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and Riri (Dominique Thorne).
"It was wonderful to work with young Black and brown designers," Carter says. "They were extremely excited and had little idea that the program they signed up for would lead them here to 'Wakanda Forever.' They were the Shuri and Riris of the design program: smart, creative, and dedicated."
In total, they produced seven unique costumes for Shuri, Okoye, and Riri. The emerging designers learned the art of collaboration and how creating looks empower an actor's portrayal of a character.
"They worked on Shuri's undercover suit, making it purple to represent her royalty, and created a cape effect by designing a swing coat on her back that billows in the air like a cape when she is on the move and riding a motorcycle," Carter says. Meanwhile, Okoye's undercover look stayed close to the attire of the Dora Milaje, because even when she's undercover, she still remains connected to that identity.
"The printed graphic on the front and athletic banding around her suit supports her muscles and feels like the harness similar to the actual Dora Milaje look," Carter explains. "As Riri is an American tech genius student, we were able to put together her look from the Adidas campaign."
Ahead, the prolific costume designer opens up about the meanings behind the ensembles in "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever."
Why White Was So Critical For King T'Challa
"Losing Chadwick Boseman was the hardest part of making this film. This was not the movie we were supposed to make — it was supposed to include him. We all had to stop, grieve, process, and pause and wait for [director Ryan Coogler] to take space and find his path in order to guide our new direction. In designing the costumes for the funeral scene for King T'Challa, we honored the African tradition of wearing white and created distinct looks for Ramonda, Shuri, Dora Milaje, and the various tribes as they honored their King of Wakanda and welcomed him to the ancestors."
How Nakia's Costumes Show Her Character's Evolution
"Nakia undergoes change and development. When we are reunited with her, we are surprised to see her in a coral color. Departing from her character as River Tribe warrior, she's softened. When we see her again by the shore, we see her in a submersible super suit — green, the color of her tribe — and we see the heart of Nakia return."
On Angela Bassett's Deep Connection to Queen Ramonda
"A moment dear and memorable to me behind the scenes was when Angela Bassett and I were putting together her costume for Queen Ramonda's scenes in the bush. I had stepped out of the fitting room for a moment to retrieve fabric and accessories from another room. When I came back, it was a lovely surprise to see that Angela had dressed herself and picked out the look for Queen Ramonda with items on the costume rack. It was spot-on with the fabric, pattern, and necklace. She just deeply understood her character. This speaks to the power of our collaboration. I have loved working with Angela and admired her soulful commitment to character transformation and filmmaking. We've had synergy over hundreds of costumes over six films together, since starting with 'Malcolm X' when she played Betty Shabazz. She is a legend — our queen."
How Grief Affects Okoye's Costumes
"Okoye's character and purpose are challenged as she delves in her own grief for the loss of King T'Challa. She was sworn to protect him and Wakanda. When we later see her fired from her post as general, we experience her pain and shift as she has to go back to her origin story, which is with the Border Tribe. When she reunites with Nakia, she is seen in Border Tribe blue and hiding her bald head in a hoodie tunic — until she is redefined again as a superhero and protector of Wakanda as a Midnight Angel."
Why Underwater Costumes Presented Technical Challenges
"The biggest challenge costume design [we] faced was for the underwater performance. We had a first test scene where M'Baku, head of the Jabri, is supposed to make a deep dive underwater. When we first tested M'Baku, he floated like a log. It was after that we learned that we would be making multiple builds of the various costumes that adapted to the buoyancy of the underwater world as well as performed eloquently on land."
The Hidden Messages Behind Namor's Costumes
"In Namor's ceremonial crown, neckpieces, and shoulder pieces, we see reference to the postclassical Mayan feathered serpent god that gives meaning to why his people call him K'uk'ulkan and are fiercely loyal to him. This was emphasized by M'Baku to Shuri in the overall story that going to war with someone as revered as the feathered serpent god would create eternal war."
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