'Coming 2 America' uses fashion to change the way the world sees Africa

Representing the continent sartorially was a responsibility costume designer Ruth E Carter took 'very seriously' — and she enlisted some SA designers to help

28 February 2021 - 00:01
Ruth E Carter hopes the costumes she's designed for 'Coming 2 America' will 'open up the possibilities for [audiences] to see how [African] people honour themselves and honour their culture'.
Ruth E Carter hopes the costumes she's designed for 'Coming 2 America' will 'open up the possibilities for [audiences] to see how [African] people honour themselves and honour their culture'.
Image: Quantrell D Colbert/Paramount Pictures

Costume designer Ruth E Carter earned a well-deserved and long overdue Oscar for her work creating the globally celebrated style of Black Panther's Wakanda in 2019.

For almost 40 years, she's fastidiously worked to create a singular Afro-futurist infused vision of the on-screen representation of black culture in cinema that's included a long-running collaboration with director Spike Lee, work with Steven Spielberg and Ava DuVernay and now the regal costumes of the fictional African kingdom of Zamunda in Craig Brewer's Coming 2 America.  

This year has also seen a major retrospective exhibition of Carter's distinctive costumes, Ruth E Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, open at the Scad Fash Museum of Fashion and Film in Atlanta.

This week, one of show business's most sought-after recognitions — a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles — was bestowed on her.

Ruth E Carter’s exhibition 'Afrofuturism in Costume Design' at the Scad Fash Museum of Fashion in Atlanta.
Ruth E Carter’s exhibition 'Afrofuturism in Costume Design' at the Scad Fash Museum of Fashion in Atlanta.
Image: Scad Fash Museum of Fashion

Speaking from LA, ahead of the global release of Coming 2 America on Amazon Prime Video on March 5, Carter recalled that when the original film with direction by John Landis and costumes by Deborah Noodalman came out in 1989, it was thrilling and really funny. 

“It starred my favourite actors, Arsenio and Eddie, who were just amazing with their transformations. So there's no way that I'd start the sequel to this movie and ignore that.”

But, though she really wanted to honour parts of the original film, she and her design
team were keenly aware of the need to push forward.

We're more sophisticated today ... we know a lot about Africa, more than we did [when the original film came out]. I had to respect that and honour that
Ruth E Carter on designing the costumers for 'Coming 2 America'

“We're more sophisticated today. We're not like we were in '89 when we didn't know very much. We have Instagram and social media and we know a lot about Africa, more than we did then. I had to respect that and honour that.”

In line with a new vision of Zamunda, Carter brought several African designers into the fold for Coming 2 America, including South African designers Palesa Mokubung of the label Mantsho and Ladumo Ngxolo of the label MaXhosa.

Nigerian Ikiré Jones and a host of other shining lights of the continent's burgeoning fashion scene were also signed on.

As the queen of modern Hollywood costume design, Carter is well aware of the power she has to effect representation of Africa and the black experience. She said she “took it very seriously and wanted to show the modern aesthetic of Africa”.

“I didn't want to let people continue to perpetuate notions that are 100 years old about how people live in Africa. I wanted to show how creative they are and how royalty is represented.”

Actor Eddie Murphy can be seen wearing one of MaXhosa Africa's signature knits in this screen grab from the trailer for 'Coming 2 America'.
Actor Eddie Murphy can be seen wearing one of MaXhosa Africa's signature knits in this screen grab from the trailer for 'Coming 2 America'.
Image: Amazon Prime Video/YouTube

She acknowledged that we're never going to be able to force people to change their views,
but she hopes that her attention to research and detail will at least “open up the possibilities for [audiences] to see how people honour themselves and honour their culture”.

“I take on that responsibility when I use something from another culture. I want to know all about it — why it's used, how it's used and if I change it for some particular reason or add it to another costume that it wouldn't usually be combined with, I know what the representation of that piece of clothing means and why it's worn. That helps me decide where each piece of the costume should go.”


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