“I wanted to create a vibe of empowered women who are beautiful and regal but can also kick some butt.”
After receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame just last week, costume designer Ruth E. Carter has yet another reason to celebrate with the release of Coming 2 America on Amazon today. Carter, who’s also the first Black woman to win an Oscar in the costume design category for Black Panther, was brought on to conceptualize the looks worn by the eclectic array of characters that appear in this continuation of Eddie Murphy’s comedy classic from 1988. The sequel is naturally set decades later, and also largely an ocean apart from the original’s primarily State-side location.
“In this film we spend most of our time in Zamunda, so I got an opportunity to tell that side of the story,” says Carter of the new film’s rendering of the fictional African nation and the style of its citizens. The tale she had a hand in weaving is that of Murphy’s King Akeem Joffer, who’s now married to Queen Lisa (Shari Headley) — his romantic interest from the first movie back when he was just a prince and she was just Lisa McDowell.
The regal couple has three extremely stylish daughters: Meeka, Tinashe and Omma (played by KiKi Layne, Akiley Love and Murphy’s actual daughter, Bella, respectively), yet Akeem is required to have a male heir to whom he’ll eventually bequeath Zamunda’s throne; this groan-worthy trope is dealt with as a point of pain for Princess Meeka, the eldest Joffer daughter. And thus, King Joffer goes off to the U.S. once again, this time in search of a son he didn’t know he had until now (Jermaine Fowler, who’s played by Lavelle Junson).
“It was a little intimidating I have to say,” Carter recalls about taking on this project while respectfully nodding to the foundational work the first film’s costume designer, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, lay out. And Carter carefully considered how she would approach the sartorial vision for this new chapter, directed by Craig Brewster.
Channeling the vibrant, Afro-futuristic aesthetic that’s become her calling card — and the focus of a current exhibition presented by the Savannah College of Fashion and Film — Carter conceived of designs that didn’t rely on piggybacking off of Nadoolman Landis’s work (though original pieces from the first film, including a crown worn by James Earle Jones’s character and Akeem’s adorned Mets jacket, are spotted in the sequel).
“I wanted to create our own Zamunda for the next generation,” Carter notes. To do this, she collaborated with a wealth of Black designers including Andrea Iyamah (whose business partially runs out of Toronto), Sergio Hudson, and Melody Ehsani to add an element of “culture and fun.”
Carter goes on to say that it was important to make the looks of Zamunda’s inhabitants “very unique, and something that felt current.” In addition to the joyful wax prints you’ll see sported by many of Coming 2 America’s characters to give their garb a sense of regional authenticity, she also drew inspiration from athleisure to exemplify an of-the-moment sense of self-possession; one particularly embodied by Princess Meeka.
“I wanted to create a vibe of empowered women who are beautiful and regal but can also kick some butt,” Carter says. Puma sent a range of pieces for her to play with, items that were cut up and “reinvented” to fashion an outfit the headstrong princess wears while practicing martial arts. “It doesn’t look like something you can buy in a store,” Carter notes. “It looks like something she designed herself.”
Such elements of personality and craft have long been present in Carter’s oeuvre, with the resulting aesthetic treading the line between amplifying Black history while also revelling in aspects of Black culture’s present and future. And ultimately, it’s the greater impact of Carter’s creative contributions that keep her pushing ahead.
“I like storytelling. I like reading scripts and imagining characters and bringing them to life,” she says when asked how the impressive recognition she’s received to-date spurs her on. “I can hardly say that an Oscar or a Hollywood star is what motivates me to go forward. [But] I would say that it motivates me to give back. I know that there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers and costume designers who would like to have some of these accolades. Whatever I can do to inspire, motivate, mentor — that’s what it means to me.”