Ruth E. Carter knows a thing or two about shining on a big stage. A trailblazing Hollywood costume designer renowned for her careful research, creativity, and the detail of her cinematic fashions, Carter is the first Black artist to twice win the Academy Award (a stunning fact given the more than a hundred-year history of Black artists in Hollywood). Her illustrious career spans more than three decades and boasts an impressive array of awards and credits that includes more than seventy films and TV series.
This year she’ll deliver the MLK Week keynote at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law Moot Courtroom at noon on January 16. A pioneer who helped shape the visual language of American cinema ever since her debut in Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” in historical films like “Selma” and “Amistad,” and through the Afrofuturism of the Black Panther movies, Carter seems particularly well suited to address the Week’s theme: “Where do we go from here?” “Carter has achieved incredible heights in pop culture, arts and entertainment,” says MLK Week Committee Chair Pamela Bishop, “and she has an incredible vantage point from which to assess our country’s direction.”
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter’s remarkable journey began with a passion for fashion and visual storytelling that would eventually launch her into the world of film and the award-winning design for both “Black Panther” and its sequel, “Wakanda Forever.” In the beginning though, she wanted to design for theater and opera. “I had been doing [costume design for plays, like] ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Chekhov and Shakespearean shows like ‘The Tempest,’” she says.
After arriving in LA, Carter’s collaboration with visionary filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg, John Singelton, Ava DuVernay, and especially her long-standing partnership with director Spike Lee, was instrumental in the course of her career—and on the impression she’s left on American film. Her work on Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” and other movies like “Selma” and “Amistad” showcased her ability to authentically capture diverse cultural aesthetics, earning her critical acclaim and raising the bar for big-screen costume design.
However, it was her groundbreaking and meticulously researched costume design on Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” that catapulted her to international acclaim. Her work on the Marvel film earned her the distinction as the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design (and the first ever to win an Oscar for Marvel Studios). Carter’s designs for Wakanda not only celebrated the rich cultural heritage of Africa (for example, see her “Okavango pattern”) but also resonated deeply with audiences worldwide, solidifying her status as a true Hollywood icon.
Her unparalleled craftsmanship, attention to detail, and dedication to storytelling through costume design have earned her dozens of accolades throughout her career, including four Academy Award nominations (she was nominated twice before winning for the “Black Panther” films), a Pioneer Award from the Black Film Critics Circle, a Vanguard Award from the NAACP Image Awards, the 2019 Costume Designers Guild Career Achievement Award, and her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Despite the prestige her name now carries (or perhaps because of it), Carter remains committed to helping other young and aspiring artists break into the industry. She supports and tutors her own costume assistants, participates in mentorship programs like the one at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, and advocates for diversity and inclusion across the entertainment industry. Her impact transcends the silver screen, inspiring a new generation of creatives and leaving an enduring legacy that redefines the artistry of costume design in cinema.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Week 2024 is presented by the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation and sponsored by L3Harris Technologies and Stadler. The Week is organized in partnership with various campus and community organizations across the University of Utah and Salt Lake City.