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The king, Queens and MaXhosa: Ruth E Carter’s blockbuster costume designs

A Xhosa thread runs like an undercurrent through Eddie Murphy’s 2021 release, Coming 2 America. It’s less about the film’s story than about how Hollywood glitz and Xhosa beadwork design shimmer and jive together. This is what happened when celebrated designer Ruth E Carter got together with one of South Africa’s most extraordinary creative thinkers, Laduma Ngxokolo of MaXhosa Africa.  

Carter bagged an Oscar for her work on Marvel Comics’s Black Panther (2018), the film that brought the fictional African country Wakanda into common parlance, and was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame this February. Carter — who is acknowledged by Ngxokolo as the queen of costume design — is gracious about her success and delighted with her collaboration with Ngxokolo. The film has been streaming on Amazon Prime video — and in cinemas —since 5 March.

Costume design is seldom punted with the same creative sexiness as performing or directing. But in truth, it lends unique life to the world a creative production creates. 

The costumes in Coming 2 America speak loudly. The colour and lines, juxtapositions and geometry will sweep you away with such force, the story becomes incidental. From palatial uniforms to the guys’ waistcoats in a Queens barbershop, the clothing’s the thing. 

Carter, born in 1960 in Massachusetts, was the youngest of three siblings. Her two brothers were artists. “I always had a love for drawing. I copied my brothers’ work all through my childhood. If my brother drew a caricature of a mouse doing a Black Power symbol, I wanted to do that! If my other brother painted a landscape, I wanted to do that! It was an activity in my house that was ever-present,” she says.

“And then, one day, I discovered a sewing machine in my bedroom. It was inside a console I was actually using as my drawing table. I opened the lid one day, and pulled up this old sewing machine!” 

Ruth E Carter on set with Nomzamo Mbatha working on the wedding dress worn in Coming 2 America. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios)

For Carter, creating with fabric was never pragmatic. It was always about the “what-ifs” of art-making. “I never made anything I wanted to wear. It was about making something into something else. I don’t think anything is by accident,” she says. “I think that was the beginning of my realising where I would be led.” 

Carter began her degree at Hampton University in special education, but her heart was in theatre. She switched her major to theatre arts, making up her own curriculum as she went along: the university didn’t offer such a focus. 

“And that led to internships … I did opera; I did live theatre; I got an offer to come out to Los Angeles. I followed my dreams in my Volkswagen Rabbit with no GPS, no airbag, no air conditioning,” she says. 

It was the 1980s. Carter understood the ethos of big hair and cropped tops. Her work on costumes for a dance piece grabbed the attention of Spike Lee, working at the time on his first film, School Daze, a feather-ruffling exploration of black society. “And we were stuck like glue” for 25 years of film-making, which yielded 11 films as well as TV pilots, photo shoots and “all kinds of stuff”, she says. It was an auspicious start to a brilliant career.

With close to 50 films under her creative belt, Carter has also worked with Ava DuVernay (Selma, 2014) and Steven Spielberg (Amistad, 1997), among others. The films she has worked on have allowed her to stretch her eye around clothing angry crowds, black-face tradition and Alabama in 1964. Her designs have played with the honky-tonk dignity of 1960s America under protest in Malcolm X, latex in Robert Townsend’s B.A.P.S and thug-gear in the 1990s in Lee’s Crooklyn

 Carter’s decision-making meant Kenyan kitenge fabric appeared in works such as Lee’s 2015 Chi-Raq. In Black Panther she pulled out many of the stops in exploring that mixed bag of central and western Africa, from cicatrisation to masks. Carter became aware of Ngxokolo’s work while working on Black Panther, when she was looking backward and forward in time and at  museum culture.

Jermaine Fowler, Eddie Murphy and Tracy Morgan on the set of the film. Murphy is wearing a cardigan from Laduma Ngxokolo’s MaXhosa Africa brand. (Image courtesy of Amazon Studios)

But Ngxokolo was something completely different. “I wanted to connect with him: I had seen his patterns and prints. They resonated with the aesthetic in Black Panther’s Step Town. When I went to South Africa for research, he was one of the people I really wanted to meet, but our paths didn’t cross. I bought an outfit from his store,” Carter says. 

She adored the colours, the fabric’s lightness, the garments’ comfort. “He was always in my mind. I hoped I would find a place for him,” she says. 

When Coming 2 America came Carter’s way, she knew he would be the perfect collaborator. “Working with Laduma has been a gift,” she adds.

Coming 2 America is the sequel of a story begun by Murphy in 1988. It’s about cultural schisms between the US and Africa. Laden with simplistic stereotypes, spiced with a bit of barbershop rhetoric and a celebration of the elderly, it is also a love story-cum-cultural adventure. The film is a dumbed-down melting pot of “African” associations, slick rather than deep. But it is the fabric and the Xhosa design chutzpah bursting from the wardrobe that makes it an utter must-see.

“In July 2019, Ruth called me. She said she had been hunting me down and following my work for some time. And she wanted to work with me on design input for some characters for this Hollywood film,” Ngxokolo says. “It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve never really designed my creations to be worn by monarchy, but we created the look and then she placed them. 

“I didn’t know how heavily present my work was in the film, until I saw it,” he says. “I was aware of Ruth’s work through Black Panther. I read up more about her, and her collaborations with Spike Lee. 

“I think my brand’s presence in this film will create a dimension that I could not have anticipated. It will open it up a wider visibility to the African diaspora and globally.”

 Nomzamo Mbatha wearing a creation by Laduma Ngxokolo. (Photo: Quantrell D Colbert/Amazon Studios)

Coming 2 America is headlined by the industry’s best-known actors, including Murphy, Wesley Snipes and James Earl Jones. 

South African actor Nomzamo Mbatha is among them. Celebrated by local soapie audiences for her role in Isibaya, she plays the love interest of the story’s prodigal bastard son, but her importance to the film is two-fold: as the only principal cast member born on the African continent, her opinion of “authentic Africanness” was important to Carter. 

“I really wanted the representation to work for Nomzamo,” adds Carter. “Laduma and I started going back and forth with what patterns we were putting in the kufi and the long tunics with the rose-petal bearers … eventually we came up with a look and an idea; he went full-steam ahead.”

Born in 1986, and raised in a child-headed household from 2002, Ngxokolo grew his now almost 10-year-old company from design savvy and belief in his own traditions. Armed with a second-hand knitting machine and textile design as a matric subject in Gqeberha, he went on to study at the Nelson Mandela University of Technology. His project lends generations-old Xhosa culture the value of high-end fashion statements.

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Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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