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Ruth E. Carter’s Historic Oscar Win


Ruth E. Carter has made history at the Oscars on multiple occasions. At the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, 2019, Carter became the first Black person to win the Oscar for best costume design for her work on “Black Panther.” Four years later, she took home the same award at the 95th Annual Academy Awards for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” making her the first Black woman to receive two Oscars.

Who is Ruth E. Carter?

Carter was born to a single-parent household on  April 10, 1960, in Springfield, Massachusetts. Carter, the youngest of eight children, used her mother’s sewing machine and learned how to read and design patterns from the Boys & Girls Club. After graduating from Springfield Technical High School, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Arts from a historically black college, Hampton Institute – now known as Hampton University. 

After graduating from college, Carter started to pursue acting. However, her experience working in the college wardrobe department sparked her love for costume design. She became an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera before moving to Los Angeles, where she designed costumes for dance studios and stage productions. By 1988, Spike Lee brought Carter on to his project “School Daze” to design the costumes and has since worked with the legendary director on 14 films, including “Jungle Fever” and “Summer of Sam.”

Carter, who is set to be the subject of the May 2023 book “The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther,” has previously opened up about the passion behind her career, explaining to NPR, “I really love movies, and I love Black history, and I love telling stories of people. The history of Black America is something that I have been close to for a long time.”

Throughout her career, Carter has worked with a wide variety of directors, including Ryan Coogler on “Black Panther,” Lee Daniels on “The Butler,” Ava DuVernay on “Selma,” John Singleton for “Shaft,” and Steven Spielberg. She has been honored by the Costume Designers Guild with a Career Achievement Award as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Carter has been nominated for her costume work at the Primetime Emmy Awards and Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, where she won three times in 2018, 2019, and 2022 for best costume design. She’s also been nominated four times at the Academy Awards, including Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1992 and Spielberg’s “Amistad” in 1997.

The Impact of Her Accolades

Hollywood has long struggled with representation from BIPOC creatives, behind the camera and in front of the camera. This lack of inclusivity has manifested itself through roles in movies and on television and a glaring lack of diverse nominations at award shows, which has sparked social media campaigns, including #OscarsSoWhite and #EmmysSoWhite, over the years. 

Throughout the history of the Academy Awards, few Black creatives have won multiple awards, let alone one accolade. In the nearly century-long history of the Academy Awards, only 22 have been awarded to Black performers. While Halle Berry remains the only Black woman to win best actress at the ceremony for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” Denzel Washington became the first Black person to win two Oscars in the acting category for best-supporting actor in 1989 for “Glory” then best actor in 2001 for “Training Day.” The only other Black actor who has achieved the same is Mahershala Ali, for “Moonlight” and “Green Book.”

However, the first Black person to win two Oscars was sound mixer Russell Williams II, who won the best sound award for “Dances With Wolves” and “Glory.” Sound mixer Willie Burton holds the same honors for “Dreamgirls” and “Bird.”

On stage at the Academy Awards, Carter delivered a speech that celebrated the multiple facets of Black women. Kicking off her speech, Carter said, “Thank you to the Academy for recognizing the superhero that is a Black woman. She endures, she loves, and she overcomes, and she is every woman in this film. She is my mother.”

Carter also paid tribute to her late mother, Mabel Carter, who recently passed away at age 101. 

“This film prepared me for this moment,” she added. “Chadwick, please take care of Mom. Ryan Coogler, and Nate Moore, thank you both for your vision. Together, we are reshaping how culture is represented.”

In the press room, Carter reflected on her win and the start of her career, explaining, “I pulled myself up from my bootstraps…I wanted to be a costume designer. I studied, I scraped, and I dealt with adversity in the industry that sometimes didn’t look like me. I endured.”

“So I feel that this win opens the door for other young costume designers who may not think that this industry is for them,” she added, “And hopefully, they’ll see me, and they’ll see my story, and they’ll think that they can win an Oscar too.”

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