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In “Black Panther,” the Villain’s Clothing Makes Him its Most Relatable Character

We spoke to costume designer Ruth E. Carter about Erik Killmonger’s hip-hop Americana look (including his grill)

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Mar 21 2018, 5:55pm

Photograph courtesy of Marvel.

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The scene that introduces Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, the antagonist of Ryan Coogler’s fantastical—and hugely profitable—adaptation of Marvel’s Black Panther comic book, takes place in a museum. Killmonger (played by a mesmeric Michael B. Jordan) is led through a West African art exhibition by a stodgy, white English tour guide. It’s a tête-à-tête of loaded historic implications: a black man and a white woman interact in public space, where he seems, at first, outnumbered and fastidiously surveilled by museum security. The guide adopts a haughty tone while describing the works to Killmonger, and when she misidentifies an artifact of African origins, Killmonger responds with sass of his own, bitterly correcting her. Finally, the ruse is over: Killmonger is there to take the looted instrument, an axe which contains the super-metal Vibranium, for his partner-in-crime, Ulysses Klaue. For himself, Killmonger selects a horned tribal mask, an item of more intimate value. “You’re not telling me that’s Vibranium, too?” Klaue scoffs. “Nah, I’m just feeling it,” Killmonger says. (Cue: “Feelin’ It,” Hov’s 1996 anthem touting the joys of material flagrancy.)

The scene intentionally toys with racialized presumptions regarding Killmonger and the tour guide, not immediately revealing which of the pair is in danger, which is the intellectual superior. Part of this tension springs from biases that some, like the museum guide, will be inclined to make about a black man who dresses like Killmonger, costume designer Ruth E. Carter told me in a recent phone interview.

“That museum scene is so important,” Carter said. “It introduces us to Killmonger, his style and motivations, and it sets him up to be the villain to T’Challa.” T’Challa, played by Chadwick Boseman, is chieftain of the technoscientific city-state Wakanda, and the reigning Black Panther. T’challa wears a suit of indestructible Vibranium, the super-metal that transformed Wakanda from an impoverished society of hunter-gatherers to the most technologically advanced nation on earth. Killmonger, the son of a murdered Wakandan expatriate and an American woman, seeks to overthrow T’Challa and disperse Wakanda’s vast arms throughout the global black community.

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Carter was brought onto the project by Coogler, a longtime fan of her work. Her film and TV projects encapsulate almost every era of American black history, from enslavement ( Roots, Amistad) through the second reconstruction and civil rights ( Rosewood, Thurgood, The Butler, Selma) and on. Carter has also styled every Spike Lee joint since School Daze, a collaboration which earned her an Oscar nod in 1992 for the audacious epic Malcolm X. She was the first black American costume designer to receive the distinction, and was nominated again for 1997’s Amistad. Now, with Black Panther, Ruth Carter is styling the black future.

Killmonger is a character that is at once urban and black and American and African. An element of each of these identities is apparent in his dress. Guided by the movie script alone, Carter said that her initial imagining of Killmonger had him in a suit with a briefcase. “He’s an anthropologist and a special agent. He’s in that museum and he knows what he’s talking about,” she said. “But Ryan wanted him to look kind of like an everyday black man—the everyday urban male.”

Describing his first appearance in the museum, she said, “He looks like, you know—” Like a rapper, I said. She agreed. His glasses are reminiscent of the Gaultier frames Tupac (like Killmonger, an Oakland native) wore on his last Vibe cover. The scars dotting his body, each one representing a kill, echo the teardrop tattoos gang members have under their eyes for similar reasons, as well as African cultures that use scarification as a kind of body art. In an interview with the Ringer, Carter described Killmonger’s museum outfit—drop-waist pants, a denim and shearling jacket, and Christian Dior combat boots—as a sartorial nod to classic Americana, western expansion and frontiersmen. Gold grills, accenting his bottom teeth, and a head of high-top styled locks complete the look—a fusion of classic American textiles with the panache of urban black style.

That same amalgamation is evident in Killmonger’s second costume: a tactical, plated vest, and camo pants, with his requisite combat boots. A long-sleeved blue shirt, worn underneath, adds a patriotic flair. He looks like a simulacrum of an American soldier and an American superhero. Carter explained that Killmonger’s armor, and the color blue, were used to signify his alien status within the borders of Wakanda. “He feels displaced, and angry; he feels left behind,” says Carter.

Photograph courtesy of Marvel.

Black Panther was embraced as a “radical” project early on, with critics and fans pointing to three factors: the film’s all-black cast, helmed by a black director; its conceptualization of an Africa unspoiled by colonialism; and regal representations of the vast cultural and ethnic diversity of the continent.

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The latter fact— Black Panther’s portrayal of a multiplicitous tribal community, each one visually and linguistically distinct—feels like a triumph considering the history of crude, reductive western portrayals of Africa. Wakanda, the Afrofuturist Shangri-La, is fortressed by a self-constructed mirage: to outsiders, Wakanda retains its appearance as a Third World country. The image of a desolate, primitive African continent seems to be the image that Black Panther works against.

What Carter insists on in each of her projects is an emphasis on the singularity of black styles, in a medium that so often confers bland homogeneity to black stories. “It’s so easy to be Afro-centric,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be centric; I wanted it to be really specific. I didn’t want Kinte cloth.”

In his 2009 essay “Imagining Black Superpower,” scholar and theorist Casey Alt traverses the complicated history of portrayals of black superheroes in America. Alt points to Gil Scott Heron’s 1975 blues and funk tinged song “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman,” in which Heron laments the superhero, for him an idol of white nationalistic bravado that nets no material gains for black people. Alt also points to Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale, who allegedly said at the 1968 trial of the Chicago Seven: “We’re hip to the fact that Superman never saved no black people. You got that?”

Though the “superman” Killmonger seeks to overthrow isn’t white, Seale's sentiment seems in line with his own. “People have this idea that black men are angry, or dangerous,” Carter said. “And it’s because of institutional racism, inequality, things like that.” Killmonger is an embodiment of the justified outrage at the plight of African-American people, and at T'Challa, the superhero he believes is unequipped to save them.

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The Black Panther was not the first black person of the Marvel Comics universe (beginning in 1965, there are black characters visible in the background of The Amazing Spiderman’s New York City), but he was the first black person imbued with superpowers. Obviously, black people, relegated to the minuscule background of a white superhero comic, don’t exactly constitute black representation. Killmonger isn’t pedestrian, but he is more familiar than T’Challa. It’s much more than his clothing, of course, but Carter’s deft hand at wardrobe styling plays a significant role.

For his final appearance, Killmonger wears a gold-accented, swaggy replica of the Black Panther cat suit, the Golden Jaguar to T’Challa’s stately Black Panther. They battle for the Wakandan throne, and T’Challa prevails, stabbing him. Ever the exhausting moralist, T’Challa offers the dying Killmonger—who, by this point, has tossed him over a waterfall after humiliating him in ritual combat, killed his consigliere, and attempted to murder his sister—the opportunity to be healed. Killmonger could live within Wakanda. He refuses, denying T’Challa the chance to be superman, to save him. Killmonger gazes at the brilliant Wakandan sunset before removing the Vibranium knife from his chest.

Technically, since Killmonger donned the protective suit, he counts as a Marvel Superhero (or perhaps an Anti-Superhero). I like to think of him as one of us, milling about the streets of the cities we love and want desperately to be better than they are. Carter views Killmonger as an avatar for black American rage and inherited trauma. “Killmonger represents us, the African-American. We were left out of Wakanda,” she says to me. “He’s us.”

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