Black Artist Spotlight: Ruth E. Carter

Ruth E. Carter has been a treasure in Hollywood for 40 years with over 40 films under her belt. Carter is a four-time best costume design Oscar nominee with nominations for Malcolm X in 1993, Amistad in 1998, Black Panther in 2019, and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in 2023. She won for Ryan Coolger’s Black Panther in 2019 becoming the first African-American woman to win the award.


Carter attended Hampton University in Virginia originally as a special education major with a plan to become a theater sign language interpreter. She later changed her major to theater in hopes of becoming an actress but, because of her work in the wardrobe department became known as the costume designer around campus. This is where Carter discovered the art of costume design thus forging her path ahead. She then started an apprenticeship at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico before making her move to Los Angeles where she became the backstage dresser at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Working there led to a freelance gig as costume designer for Lula Washington’s Dance Theatre.

In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter Carter recounted how she met collaborator, Spike Lee.

“They were performing to the music of Stevie Wonder and Spike was brought to see that performance with Robi Reed and she introduced us. Spike was not known then; he had just done She’s Gotta Have It but it hadn’t gotten anywhere yet. He kept asking me about my experience with film, and I had none, so he said, ‘Go to USC or UCLA and sign up in the film studies department to work on someone’s senior thesis project.’ So I did a film for a USC student.”

Then, Carter received a call. “Ruth, this is the man of your dreams!” a man said on the other line. “It was the ‘80s and I responded, ‘Denzel?!’ He said, ‘No, this is Spike. I want you to do my next movie, School Daze.’ So I quit my job and I started sketching and drawing.” And the rest is history. Carter went on to work on 14 more films with Lee including Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, and Crooklyn.

BAPS, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Love & Basketball, Baby Boy, Sparkle, The Butler, Selma, and Coming 2 America are just some of the other films in Carter’s credits.


In 2021, Carter made history once again becoming the first Black and second costume designer ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ruth defines her costume designs as “Afrofuturism” which she describes as “African culture and diaspora using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit.” You can see over 60 of Carter’s designs in the Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art from April 1st to August 6th.



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