Ava DuVernay and Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler are ‘rewriting the language’ to show black cinema is profitable

Black Panther's Ryan Coogler is 'rewriting the language' to show black cinema makes money
(Picture: Getty; Disney/Marvel)

Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and F. Gary Gray are just some of the black directors who in recent years have begun to break into the industry of Hollywood, helming big budget, tentpole movies.

And what these directors are doing, says Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter, is ‘rewriting the language all over again so we can show Hollywood we won’t always be so independent, you can put the money behind our ideas and it will create ticket sales’.

The shifting winds in Hollywood have seen film executives begin to sit up and take notice of that exact statement, that alienating entire sections of the movie-going public is bad for business; after all, the top two highest-grossing movies in 2017 were about women, and it looks like 2018’s list will feature Marvel’s Black Panther.

‘When Hollywood did Birth Of A Nation (1915) and then Oscar Michaeux is doing the black cast films, [he was] trying to provide an opportunity for blacks to see themselves how they knew they lived, and not in some blackface, shuffling along, concept that Hollywood was doing,’ says Ruth.

‘So there has always been Africans uplifting the race in many ways, it’s just that we tap into it in different ways in different times, so now we are not necessarily so independent anymore.

‘There are a few that have flown into big budget films like Ryan and Ava.’

Black Panther's Ryan Coogler is 'rewriting the language' to show black cinema makes money
Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in Black Panther (Picture: Disney/Marvel)

One movie that is doing that is Black Panther.

In development in Hollywood since the early 1990s, it was finally confirmed in 2007 that the film was officially on Marvel’s slate and that producer Nate Moore – at the time the head of the writers program – was helping to oversee the production of the film.

And it was in 2016 that Ruth was called in to see Ryan and Nate.

Using the internet to get some general information about Black Panther and Wakanda – which Ruth admits she ‘knew nothing about’ – she spoke with Ryan and Nate about their vision.

But for Ruth, as she came to designing the costumes for not only T’Challa but also all the supporting chracters who also all needed to tell a story in their outfits, she was inspired by the Afro-future aspect of the fictional country of Wakanda.

Black Panther's Ryan Coogler is 'rewriting the language' to show black cinema makes money
The Dora Milage outfits (left) were the hardest for Ruth (Picture: Marvel/Disney)

‘The comics… I felt the images were dated. Afro-future is happening at this present moment, we are now exploring new ideas and tech is always changing, so what was cool was that although the illustrations of the comics is passe now, what they did show me was there was an African nation that was a mixture of all types of cultures and religions and looks,’ says Ruth.

‘Whether it was tribal or Masaai, we explored ways of looking to bring that methodology to the costumes, and make it relatable and interesting.’

Inspired by traditional African lace and the newest technological advances, Ruth used one of our highest tech advances, 3D print clothing.

There’s only one printer in the world though that allows designers to print clothing using materials that are flexible so Ruth worked globally – from California to Belgium to Africa – to build the costumes.

‘From the first day I was told [Marvel] were prepared that if I needed to source material outside the US, they would support me,’ she says.

‘And it was not an easy process… I never doubted that they were micromanaging what I envisioned, and they let me know verbally that they were so in support, and it was my project,’ she adds.

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The Black Panther suit was the most expensive (Picture: Marvel/ Disney)

Black Panther’s suit was, says Ruth, the most expensive – ‘it had moulded elements, 3D printing for helmet, it had supplemental printing for surface treatment of his suit, special gloves, several copies for different reasons… ‘ – and the longest to put on each day: ‘He had a muscle suit, and he needed three people to help him get dressed. Once he put on the skin suit he couldn’t get to his boots so we were dressing him!’

But the toughest costume to make was the Dora Milaje, the King’s royal guards: ‘It’s one thing to draw a costume but another once it’s made to have a story, and I was very adamant about making sure the Dora had a story behind their honour and costumes.

‘Things had to look like they were for protection or that they were rooted in something, and most traditional garments in Africa have a story – women wear the beaded apron because they may be virgins, and the men wear this or that – so all things have a reason, so I’d look at something and if I thought it was just decorative and there, it made no sense.’

The costumes have been singled out by critics and fans for their stunning and colourful designs and Ruth admits it’s only just now that she has ‘started to get a sense that it was an accomplishment on my part, and as a group’.

Black Panther's Ryan Coogler is 'rewriting the language' to show black cinema makes money
Up next for Ruth is Sony’s Silver and Black (Picture: Getty)

Up next for Ruth is Sony’s superhero film Silver And Black, about Silver Sable and Black Cat.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the crew have just begun what Ruth calls ‘very early prep’ although she adds that ‘it’s nice to be reunited with a friend and known director’; the pair worked together on 2000’s Love And Basketball which Gina directed and Ruth worked on the costumes.

Ruth’s first film was Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze; the pair have a close friendship and Ruth went on to work on films of Spike’s such as Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), Oldboy (2013) and and Chi-Raq (2015).

The director is known for his films about race relations and colourism in the black community and Spike was, says Ruth, always hiring ‘below the line talent, African-American and otherwise’.

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‘He was very much part of training and bringing on [black] interns, so that concept has been part of my world since the beginning and Black Panther is one that falls in line with that concept,’ she adds.

‘I feel the landscape was always there,’ she says.

‘Independent film making is still alive and well, new unique talent is still embraced and just as Ryan said to me many times during the process, “the 80s and 90s are back”, we’re embracing the Spike Lee of yesterday today – he was a pioneer, and he made it possible for people like him and myself to have long-standing careers and gave us opportunities.

‘Even in the early part of the 20th century there was always an effort to create images that were positive, you have Oscar Michaeux in the 1920s and then Melvin van Peebles in the 70s, there has always been an interest in showing black cinema in the light that was creative for filmmakers, and more true than what Hollywood was doing.’

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In 2017, as Hollywood begins to finally embrace what these independent black filmmakers have been doing for years, Ruth suggests that the sense of family the Black Panther cast and crew offered reminds her of the power of film.

‘I haven’t felt a sense of family before – I always try to create one in my department but as far as the feeling on set it felt like family dynamic,’ she says.

‘The biggest thing I was reminded of was the level of respect for each other and the craft, no one antagonised or intimidated or pushed away, everyone was embracing and loving each other for their uniqueness.

‘And that’s what I enjoy seeing in that environment, we could be with Michael B. Jordan and Lupita [Nyong’o] and Ryan and myself and Hannah [Bleacher[ and Nate, and have a big laugh about nothing, and then when we had to get our heads down… it was a very healthy environment.’

Black Panther is out in cinemas on 13 February.

MORE: Black Panther’s Daniel Kaluuya isn’t a spokesperson for black people

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