“Black Panther” wouldn’t be as beautiful and powerful for viewers without the Black women who helped create the images.
Marvel’s “Black Panther” directed by Ryan Coogler has officially sold more presale tickets than any superhero movie in history. The public’s attraction to this film is deeper than wanting to be entertained, it’s about representation. People are hungry for a superhero with a different kind of message. “This isn’t just about any super hero, it’s a lot more,” says Ruth Carter, the lead costume designer for this highly anticipated film.
Carter is a critically acclaimed Hollywood designer who has been working in the industry since 1986. She is the first black person to be nominated for an Oscar in costume design and her work includes films such as: “Malcolm X”, “Do the Right Thing”, “Hollywood Shuffle”, “Love and Basketball”, and “Selma”. Despite her ability to push past several barriers, Carter speaks candidly about the ways Hollywood hiring practices are still rooted in ethnic exclusion: “There is a Hollywood machine and there is a certain group of people who knows how it functions. There is a certain similarity to every picture and companies tend to bring those people back and they become part of the studio family. They are selected back because their fathers were in the industry or other relatives or friends. That’s why we don’t get the opportunity because they’re not used to a new spice that’s in the soup, or a new flavor.”
Ruth Carter has taken her isolating experience of being othered in her field and has used it to create more inclusive hiring practices. Whenever she is presented with the opportunity to select designers for her team, she makes sure to diversify. “It’s hard to be the only African American on the set. I always make sure my crew is very diverse but we all battle with ‘If we’re too black, we won’t be asked back.’”
Ruth has seen the politics of black entertainment undergo several phases and refers back to “Hollywood Shuffle”, a Robert Townsend film released in 1987 that critiqued the way black entertainers were typecast and stereotyped in order to work in Hollywood. “The whole basis of ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ was assimilation is the name of the game but we’re not doing ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ anymore. Fear leads to assimilation; bravery is what gets us ahead.” Carter’s commitment to hiring a diverse design team is what led Douriean Fletcher to receive her big break as the Specialty Jeweler in “Black Panther”.
Douriean is a self-taught artist, and her career emerged from an undying need to create. Despite her intrinsic passion, Fletcher spent several years finding a home for her brand of jewelry. Much of the work Douriean created for “Black Panther” originated from recurring visions at the start of her career. For example, she knew she was meant to design jewelry for Angela Bassett long before she was assigned to the movie: “In 2015, I posted a Facebook status saying, ‘Next time (Angela Bassett) will be wearing my earrings,’ and two years later I was. It was mind-blowing! She exudes such a powerful feminine energy. Creating this piece with her was such a fun process.”
Douriean refused to compromise, and her vision was exactly what was needed for this film.. “The pieces that I made in ‘Black Panther’ were primarily for the royal family, which is interesting because when I first started my career I wrote in my journal, I feel like in a past life I made jewelry for royalty. All of the pieces that I had to create was for a narrative that emitted royalty.”
It’s important to note that Douriean’s talent could not have been harnessed if she had not been offered the opportunity to show up and share her gifts for “Black Panther”. It leads to asking the question: How can institutions within Hollywood create systems derived from a spirit of inclusion as opposed to exclusion? Exclusion narrows creative potential and produces content that is conventional and uninspired. Inclusion requires a great deal of risk, but it’s obviously what the masses are hungry for.
Regarding the meaning behind “Black Panther”, Douriean states, “It’s good to see representation of a black superhero who is educated, and has never experienced colonization. He comes from a sovereign nation and his whole country is self-made. I think it’s powerful for people to see that imagery right now. I used to teach so I often think about children and for children to see those optics right now in a time where black kids are literally scared of the police… it’s going to bring them some power and hope. It’s a reflection of them; it’s who they are.”
For more information about Douriean’s work and to purchase from her exclusive Black Panther jewelry line., check out her website. For more information on Ruth Carter’s legacy and work, please visit www.ruthecarter.com.