The first time we interviewed legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter, it was in anticipation of the 2018 release of Black Panther, the Marvel blockbuster that brought her a long-deserved Academy Award and catapulted its lead actor, Chadwick Boseman, to international fame. It was the duo’s second consecutive film, having also worked together on 2017's Marshall, where Boseman played the titular role of Thurgood Marshall.
Carter recounted the story of her meeting and subsequent creative collaboration with Boseman, who died in August of colon cancer, in a heartfelt tribute published by the Guardian on Saturday.
“On the first day of filming on Marshall I found out that I would be designing for Black Panther, which meant we’d be working together again,” she wrote. “I wondered if I should tell him, but I decided not to. Around two weeks before we finished, I finally told him, and he said: ‘Oh, I already knew.’”
Recalling the late actor’s first fitting for the role of Thurgood Marshall, she wrote:
...I showed him images and black-and-white videos of people in the 40s doing the lindy hop and going out partying. He started doing some of his James Brown moves [from 2014's Get on Up] in the room, to get us into the mood—I was amazed at his dancing abilities. Thurgood Marshall would have had the tie and the pinstripe double-breasted suit and the pocket squares, so I put all of those things on Chadwick and he started to embody, maybe for the first time, what he was feeling about the character. It was wonderful to work with someone who wanted to connect costume to character like that.
Boseman’s death was a shock to all but his closest friends and family, as it was revealed he’d been living with what began as a Stage 3 diagnosis since 2016. During that time, he made seven films, cementing his status as one of Hollywood’s most talented actors, but as Carter and others have noted, he was also emotionally intelligent.
“He was a very thoughtful person, and quiet, but not necessarily reserved,” she wrote. “Once you asked him a question, he was an open book, but he wasn’t volunteering the information, probably because he wanted to hear what you had to say.”
Boseman was also entirely committed to his craft, and to the collaborative process that is filmmaking. Sharing various anecdotes from their time working together, Carter explained that Boseman was always a gracious participant in the process.
He understood the process and the team effort involved in telling a story, having directed for film and theatre himself, so he was never bothered by you being there...He was spiritually rooted. He was strong in his own self-assurance and mature in his approach to his work. And he was very kind. There are some celebrities who make you nervous, like: “Oh, God, maybe they’ll get me fired because they don’t like their pants.” He never seemed to be that way. We would crack jokes about things that didn’t work. It made that feeling of having messed things up not so bad.
Most poignantly, Carter articulated a loss felt far beyond the insular enclave of Hollywood. Echoing the mourning many of us have experienced, not only in response to Boseman’s unexpected passing but the myriad tragic events of 2020—including the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, the ongoing tragedy of COVID-19 crisis, and the extrajudicial murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain—she wrote:
When I heard he’d passed away, I was stunned. I was alone in my house when I heard. It feels like your whole insides are empty. Your heart doesn’t beat, your lungs don’t breathe, your blood isn’t turning, your mind is not focused on anything, you’re just in a state of disbelief. My phone started to get a lot of text messages and calls, but I wouldn’t answer them because I felt, if this is true, I need to sit with it. I wanted to fill myself up with him and just be still. And that’s what I did for the entire night. The next day, I started connecting with other Marvel people and collaborators and friends, and the loss becomes more communal.
As Carter noted, Boseman will “be remembered as an amazing actor who departed on his own terms,” forever revered as a hero, on and off-screen. “I think the love of what we do really shined in him,” she concluded.