The movie opens with a funeral scene. The Black Panther—King T’Challa of the African nation of Wakanda—has just died. His kingdom, and his loved ones, are struggling to go on without him.
Ruth Carter, the film’s costume designer, was tasked with conveying this grief through the characters’ outfits. In both Black Panther movies, Carter uses the costuming to bring the audience into the lively, diverse African cultures that make up Wakanda, turning to historians and anthropologists in her research. (Carter won the Oscar for best costume design in 2019 for the first movie and has been nominated again for the sequel.) But in Wakanda Forever, she also uses clothing to express the characters’ inner lives and the bottled-up emotions many of them carry throughout the film.
As she began to delve into the psychology of the three female leads in the movie—King T’Challa’s mother, sister, and lover—she realized that she would need to illustrate how differently their grief played out. Carter skillfully uses costumes to convey both the vulnerability and the strength of these women.
Carter says that much of the sadness we see in the film mirrors the collective grief the cast and crew felt in real life. Chadwick Boseman, the actor who played Black Panther in the first film, died in 2020. From the start of filming, the cast and crew were mourning together. Carter says that the funeral scene was full of raw emotion. “There was all of this energy,” she says. “We all thought, I need to move and dance to celebrate Chadwick. It was cathartic.”
But, at the same time, Carter points out that grief is also very personal. And each of the three women closest to King T’Challa have very different journeys as they mourn.
Queen Ramonda, the king’s mother, played by Angela Bassett, feels she must go through mourning rituals to process her loss, so she can be strong for her people who now rely on her. Throughout the movie, she is portrayed in a white gown with a white headdress. Carter says that the outfit was inspired by African tradition. “White and red are the colors of mourning in African societies,” she says. “Queen Ramonda has the beautiful embroidery and embellishments of a queen, and everything is on a bright white fabric.”
But while the costume conveys power and strength, Carter made very considered decisions to signal that she is also vulnerable and weak. Carter had learned from African historians that family members sometimes shave their heads after a loved one dies. In the first movie, Queen Ramonda had dreadlocks, but in this one, her hair is short and white, peaking out from under the headdress. “I thought it was important to see her Afro,” Carter says. “It’s an Easter egg. If you’re in film school studying this movie, you would see that she had cut her hair.”