'Take Chances and Be Unpredictable'

Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter addresses College of Arts & Sciences grads

Ruth Carter addresses graduates
Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter addressed the College of Arts & Sciences Class of 2019.

Ruth Carter, Oscar-winning Black Panther costume designer, called on Suffolk University graduates to be lifelong students of their passions, to pursue their goals in service of something bigger, and to look inward for self-validation to develop foundations to sustain them through difficult times. 

“Take chances and be unpredictable. You have your whole life to live by the book,” said Carter in her keynote speech to Suffolk’s College of Arts & Sciences graduates.

Carter, a visual storyteller who has been lauded for incorporating the history of the black experience into her designs and who became the first African American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design earlier this year, received the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters at the College ceremony, one of three Suffolk commencements held at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront. 

Her speech drew on lessons learned from three decades creating meticulously-researched, character-revealing costumes for film and TV productions, including her Oscar-nominated work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg's Amistad.

“Start today”

Carter recalled leaving her Springfield, Mass., hometown to seek opportunities after college. Detailing the “adventurous time with friends, supporting each other, and figuring out Hollywood” she encouraged the Suffolk graduates to heed the example of her friend and colleague, the late filmmaker John Singleton, director of Boyz n the Hood among other films and television programs. 

“John Singleton knew the stories he wanted to tell while he was sitting in the exact same seats you are today. He left his graduation running so he could get on with telling his stories,” said Carter.

“You have more resources at your disposal than in any time in history, a great foundation in Suffolk University, and an incredible life experience in Boston. Take from John Singleton’s example and start doing what it is what you want to do in this life. Start today.” 

Ruth E. Carter salutes graduates

Ruth Carter

00:04
[Applause]
00:05
Wow I can finally call myself dr. Ruth
00:13
thank you for this wonderful wonderful
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honor and hello
00:19
Suffolk University Boston Massachusetts
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distinguished faculty and staff parents
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grandparents auntie's family friends and
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even the haters I'm excited to celebrate
00:47
with you this momentous day thank you to
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the College of Arts and Sciences for
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this invitation acting Provost Roy o
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Dean Toyota and especially professor
01:00
Belanger who put my name forward we go
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way back by also having me here today
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you've helped me coordinating my mom for
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Mother's Day in my home state of
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Massachusetts let me get on with
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imparting some words of wisdom because I
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know most of you are probably hungover
01:27
others are zoning out wondering what
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will happen on tonight's episode of Game
01:33
of Thrones and the rest of you can't
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wait to get to the mimosas
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the world beyond college can be just as
01:47
crazy as moving into the dorms here at
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Suffolk your career decisions may change
01:54
as you learn to figure out what you like
01:57
to do and what you don't like to do it
02:01
may take a while for you to figure it
02:04
out this Oscar win for Marvel's Black
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Panther was not an overnight success let
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me tell you I've been doing this costume
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design gig for a long time long before
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you all were born and long before they
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invented Spanx I really do applaud you
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graduates for being in these seats when
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I was a student at Hampton University I
02:36
almost did not graduate I was a few
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credits shorter and a few dollars shy of
02:43
my rent so I decided it was time to go
02:45
but before leaving campus I wanted to
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say goodbye to my professor and mentor
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Linda Bolton Smith she would not say
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goodbye
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instead she offered me room and board to
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finish out the semester she was an
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incredible example of a black woman and
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showed me the discipline of being an
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artist by waking up at 5 in the morning
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and devoting the first two hours of her
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day to her writing she taught me that
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being an artist needs to remain
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passionate studying not only your craft
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but your culture and yourself seeking
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out the unique details that add color
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and pattern and texture to your stories
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Linda exposed me to the famous artists
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like whoa lace or Inca Alice Walker
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romare bearden
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and assured me that I could stand side
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by side with any of them no matter what
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stage in your career or life stay
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connected to your professors mentors and
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colleagues who support you seek out
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people who believe in your talents and
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can see you before you can see yourself
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after Hampton I went back home to
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Springfield Mass yes that's right some
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of you might be moving back home too if
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you are you can buy mom and dad the
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mimosas at brunch back in my hometown I
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was accepted for an internship in a
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local theatre during this time I was
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studying about design opportunities
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around nation the woman who hired me for
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my internship said Ruth you've gotta
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focus on doing this you have to pursue
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costume design so I got in my 89
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Volkswagen Rabbit which had no airbags
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and no a/c and I had to roll the windows
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down like this and I headed west I was
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awarded an internship in New Mexico I
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enjoy across the entire country to do a
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season at the Santa Fe Opera then I
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decided to head to the Pacific Ocean
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there in Los Angeles I connected with
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friends also that I went to college with
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at Hampton and one of my friends worked
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in the film industry this was such an
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adventurous time with friends and
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supporting each other and figuring out
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Hollywood graduates take an adventure
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take chances and be unpredictable you
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have your whole life to live by the book
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if I hadn't have taken a chance all
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those years ago I wouldn't be standing
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before you today so take the chance
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I began freelancing for Lula
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Washington's
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Dan's company in South Central Los
05:57
Angeles doing costumes for a show that
06:01
was inspired by the music of Stevie
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Wonder one night that same college
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friend came to see the show and brought
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Spike Lee when she introduced me he said
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you can do the same thing you do for
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theater for film and he encouraged me to
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expand my talents I would go on to
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costume design for graduate student film
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projects at USC and it furthered my
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training then one morning I got a call I
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answered
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hello he said Ruth I said yes he said
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Ruth this is the man of your dreams
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I said Denzel no this is spike I want
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you to be the costume designer for my
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next film
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starting with school day spike and I
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have collaborated on 14 films
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he showed me bravery through his
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filmmaking from Radio Raheem to Malcolm
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X we were making art by any means
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necessary
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he pushed me to remain conscious that
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these articles of clothing were not only
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costumes but also garments of protest
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and symbols of truth do the right thing
07:39
is archived in the Library of Congress
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because the message still resonates
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today as it did in 1989 working with
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Spike he challenges our creative
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boundaries between researching the life
07:56
of Malcolm X beginning at the Department
07:59
of Corrections right here in
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Massachusetts where he was held to his
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pilgrimage we experienced in Egypt not
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only did I learn to find my own unique
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scent signature but I also learned to
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use my art in service of something
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bigger this then turned to into my first
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Oscar nomination for Malcolm X
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[Music]
08:30
no matter whether you're in journalism
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finance psychology art history pursue
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your life work in service of something
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bigger and you'll start to understand
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your purpose for about ten years I
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worked bicoastal creating New York
08:49
stories and broad comedies until I
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landed a gig with the late great
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director John Singleton from his
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doorstep we projected a spotlight on the
09:01
LA experience not only did we explore
09:05
the gang culture of Los Angeles and baby
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boy with rosewood we made filmmaking a
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family affair
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his intellect about moviemaking film and
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art and his spirit and kindness towards
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me and others is what made him a special
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person take from his example and don't
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waste your time John Singleton knew the
09:31
stories he wanted to tell while he was
09:33
sitting in the same exact seats where
09:36
you are today
09:37
he left his graduation running so he
09:42
could get on with telling his stories
09:44
but couldn't finish because he left us
09:46
too soon and he had so much story to
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tell you have all the resources at your
09:53
disposal than any time in history a
09:57
great foundation at Suffolk University
09:59
and a incredible life experience in
10:03
Boston take from John's a John
10:07
Singleton's example and start doing what
10:10
it is you want to do in this life start
10:13
today after doing these film projects my
10:17
passion for study in african-american
10:20
history and literature was reignited
10:23
people might assume I became a costume
10:26
designer because I liked the fashions of
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Chanel
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you're McQueen findi Louie Bhutan but
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now but now it was Lorraine Hansberry
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Langston Hughes Nikki Giovanni Sonia
10:45
Sanchez James Baldwin and so many others
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those were my designers those
10:53
playwrights and poets raised me up with
10:56
their rich stories and made me come
10:59
alive they lit a passion in me to create
11:02
and showed me that costume design as
11:06
being artistic and visionary and
11:09
inspired so I started to collect a
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personal library of books and photos
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artifacts on african-american history
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and culture that's when I was approached
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by Debbie Allen and Steven Spielberg to
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do Amistad the work on Amistad was a
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culmination of all that study but
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because it became a place of passion it
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did not feel like work rather it felt
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like a continued purpose and telling
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stories that allow us to know ourselves
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better this helped me earn my second
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Oscar nomination yes be a student of
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your passion yes you are graduating but
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you will continue to be a student of
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your passion throughout my career I
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remained a student of people
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storytelling history telling a student
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of design and art studying my script my
12:11
craft and myself after Amistad it would
12:17
be 21 years before I'd see my next
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nomination that's the entire span of
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your lives during that time I learned
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about self validation and to try to stay
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too true to my calling and my purpose
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when there's no outside source giving
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you validation
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and a feeling of worthiness you have to
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look inward
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I had to visualize and define what it
12:48
meant to be a costume designer for
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myself I realized whether or not the
12:53
film did well in the box office or
12:56
became a cultural classic I was in
12:59
control of the art I produced I wanted
13:03
to make sure I brought the best of
13:05
myself because people will notice when
13:07
you do well and they may offer you a
13:10
role of lifetime no matter the
13:15
challenges I face the hardships I
13:18
endured personal tragedies I went
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through heartaches heartbreaks when it
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came back to my work the artistry the
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creativity the design when I would come
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back to my foundation and my purpose
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everything felt like it was right when
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things got difficult I would say my
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mantras to myself and you may do the
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same define what it is that you are and
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when times get difficult
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you'll learn to rely on that foundation
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and come back to your purpose when
14:00
Marvel called I thought why me I have
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never done a superhero film you know
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Marvel's like the CIA as you enter the
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doors lock behind you I was in a meeting
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with the producers Nate Moore and
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director Ryan Coogler and I was having
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trouble bringing up my design concepts
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on the drop box but of course you just
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can't login to Marvel you need to get
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your eye scan fingerprinted blood drawn
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that's when Ryan says to me Ruth I'm so
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happy you are here that put me at ease I
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really cherish that moment I felt like I
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had audition for Black Panther when Ryan
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saw Malcolm X as a young boy with his
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father from Ryan's perspective between
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Malcolm X I'm
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Todd the butler Selma and Thurgood
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Marshall I have been designing
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superheroes
15:08
my work on Black Panther in many ways
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has been a career-defining full circle
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experience for me that journey of
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Amerson myself into the beauty and depth
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of so many ancient African cultures such
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as the lassoo to the Masai the Himba
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Zulu Turkana Tuareg Sam I
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soory Dogon and many others and the
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opportunity to weave their cultural
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stories into the costumes was an
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incredible honor all these traditions
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merging and were presented in their
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regality at the warrior falls and the
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presence of knowing the impact that this
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film could have on the world and for the
16:00
culture and then it actually paling in
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comparison to what it really did 1.3
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billion dollars worldwide Marvel may
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have created the first black superhero
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but through costume design we turned him
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into an African King
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everything I had learned and been
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through set me up for that experience I
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have been designing costumes for the
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african-american narrative that took
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place during a time when black people
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were either slaves relegated to be the
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help or fighting for their rights and
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justice and here Marvel desired the look
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and design of the film to be
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authentically African Marvel encouraged
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me to fully exercise my talent
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imagination in merging the traditional
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with the contemporary creating the Afro
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Future through the costumes it was an
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honor to showcase the emergent of
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tradition and royalty and to reimagine
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beauty and the empowered way women can
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look and lead on-screen
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it inspired me to reflect on my entire
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body of work on the artistry and the
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messages in all the costumes that I have
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designed through the many years and
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realize overall Mikan contribution to
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afro future I was showcasing a point of
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view the African culture and Dyess fora
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and using technology intertwining it
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with imagination together over the many
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films with the many actors directors
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cast and crew
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we presented possibility we presented
18:09
afro future I have found my voice and
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understood my purpose the work on black
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to pet the Black Panther was about a
18:20
director who believed in me and saw my
18:24
role in telling this story graduates the
18:28
same may happen for you it's about
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taking a chance it's about being in
18:36
service of something bigger it's about
18:40
not wasting any more time telling this
18:43
version of our story it's about being a
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student of your passion and it's about
18:51
being in control of the quality of art
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you present so you can tell your story
18:58
your way the night I received the Oscar
19:03
as the first african-american in costume
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design when I was walking off the stage
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I realized the door for other people who
19:13
had dreamed of this had been flung wide
19:16
open
19:24
it made every step forward and backward
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the ups and the downs the highs and the
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lows all worth it my journey continues
19:39
as I travel from Wakanda to zamunda in
19:44
coming to America too so stay tuned
19:48
but graduates your journey starts today
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graduates I hope you were taking notes
20:02
because life is always testing you this
20:07
afternoon as you raise your glass to
20:10
toast yourselves
20:11
remember to stay in touch with your
20:14
mentors take a chance be in service of
20:19
something bigger
20:20
don't waste time be a student of your
20:25
passion be in control of the quality of
20:29
work and art you present you can write
20:32
your own story today is the first page
20:37
make it a best-seller
20:48
congratulations Suffolk University and
20:51
the class of 2019
20:54
[Applause]
21:15
you

“You have to look inward”

Carter told Suffolk graduates to take strength from mentors “who believe in your talents and can see you before you can see yourself,” but to develop their own sense of worth by pursuing quality, purpose-defining work. 

“When times get difficult, you’ll learn to rely on that foundation and come back to your purpose,” she said, recalling times when she drew on her own strength to weather times of “heartache and heartbreak.” 

Carter described her pursuit of excellence and authenticity in design as a personal mission to learn as much as possible about African and African American history, literature, and art—drawing inspiration from “playwrights and poets [who] raised me up with their rich stories and made me come alive.”

“I realized whether or not the film did well in the box office or became a cultural classic, I was in control of the art I produced,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I brought the best of myself, because people will notice when you do well; they may offer you a role of a lifetime.”

For Carter, the “role of a lifetime” as costume designer for 2018’s Black Panther, which earned her an Academy Award, was many years in the making. She put her achievement in perspective for the undergraduates in the audience.

“After Amistad, it would be 21 years before I’d see my next nomination. That’s the entire span of your lives,” she said. “During that time, I learned about self-validation and to try to stay true to my calling and purpose. When there is no outside source giving you validation and a feeling of worthiness, you have to look inward.” 

In closing, Carter charged the Suffolk students to “be in control of the quality of work and art you present. You can write your own story.”

A powerful force for good

Speaking on behalf of President Marisa Kelly, who could not attend the ceremony due to a death in the family, Acting Provost Sebastián Royo lauded the graduates’ positive impact on their communities and the lives of others. 

“You and your colleagues throughout the University registered more than 30,000 hours of community service through volunteerism and service learning projects,” he said. “Those experiences have not only been a valuable part of your own education, but they also have made communities, including our Boston community, better. Through your contributions, you have lifted up lives.” 

Calling them a “powerful force for good,” Royo noted the graduating class’ service to organizations such as Jumpstart, the Boston Debate League, Habitat for Humanity, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, the Suffolk CARES food pantry, and many others. 

Royo cited examples of students’ work to help others and improve their communities, including their roles as polling station volunteers, climate researchers, and assistants in Suffolk’s free legal clinics. 

Royo also praised the graduates’ ability to rise above divisive rhetoric to create an atmosphere of civility on campus.

“When others have expressed viewpoints different than your own, you have been willing to listen and engage in respectful conversation. And that too is a core Suffolk value. The world needs this kind of civility now more than ever.

About Ruth Carter

Revealing a character’s essence through costume design has brought Ruth E. Carter accolades as an “essential visual storyteller of Afrofuturism."

Carter, originally from Springfield, Mass., has played a significant role in shaping the personas of characters in more than 60 film and TV productions during a three-decade career. She won an Oscar for best costume design for her work on the 2018 Marvel Studios blockbuster Black Panther, with costumes that not only gave authenticity to an imagined world but also are influencing the world of fashion. The Wakandian attire melds a sci-fi vibe with carefully researched African motifs. Among the influences were the color symbolism of the Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania and the jewelry of the Ndebele women of Southern Africa.

Previous Academy Award nominations for costume design came for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X—one of more than 10 films she worked on with the director and actor—and Steven Spielberg's Amistad. Carter also was nominated for an Emmy for the 2016 reboot of Roots.

Carter’s imagination is a key to her designs, but she also is known for her comprehensive research in recreating the clothing of different times and places. She created clothing that might have been worn by a 19th century Spanish queen and by African slaves for Amistad. The look and feel of the civil rights era was recreated for actors playing the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., his allies, and adversaries for Ava Duvernay's Selma. And she captured the fashion vibe of 1980s Bedford-Stuyvesant for Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

A “Heroes and Sheroes” exhibit of her work has toured the United States in 2018-19, and the fashion industry recently honored Carter for her iconic work in some of the most influential films in U.S. history. She told the industry guests that she was attracted to costume design through “these stories of African-American culture, this story of our journey. When I started, I didn’t see very much of us, and I really in my heart wanted to tell my stories.”

Carter holds a BA from Hampton University.

Commencement 2019

The College of Arts & Sciences Class of 2019 is made up of 782 new alumni, with 659 undergraduate and 123 graduate degrees awarded. The ceremony was one of three Suffolk commencements held on Sunday, May 19, at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on the Boston waterfront.

The University conveyed a total of 2,137 undergraduate and advanced degrees during weekend ceremonies.

 
 

More from College of Arts & Sciences Commencement 2019

Text of Speeches

Ruth E. Carter [PDF], Oscar-Winning Costume Designer, Keynote Speaker

Maggie Randall [PDF], BS/MA '19, Student Speaker 

About the student speaker

An Accelerated Path to Political Involvement

Commencement Ceremony

See photo galleries and replay College of Arts & Sciences commencement video

In the Media

Boston Globe: ‘Black Panther’ costume designer tells Suffolk grads to create their own adventures

Contact

Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs
617-573-8428
 
Office of Public Affairs
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