'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

Transcript 00:05
Wow I can finally call myself dr. Ruth
thank you for this wonderful wonderful
honor and hello
Suffolk University Boston Massachusetts
distinguished faculty and staff parents
grandparents auntie's family friends and
even the haters I'm excited to celebrate
with you this momentous day thank you to
the College of Arts and Sciences for
this invitation acting Provost Roy o
Dean Toyota and especially professor
Belanger who put my name forward we go
way back by also having me here today
you've helped me coordinating my mom for
Mother's Day in my home state of
Massachusetts let me get on with
imparting some words of wisdom because I
know most of you are probably hungover
others are zoning out wondering what
will happen on tonight's episode of Game
of Thrones and the rest of you can't
wait to get to the mimosas
the world beyond college can be just as
crazy as moving into the dorms here at
Suffolk your career decisions may change
as you learn to figure out what you like
to do and what you don't like to do it
may take a while for you to figure it
out this Oscar win for Marvel's Black
Panther was not an overnight success let
me tell you I've been doing this costume
design gig for a long time long before
you all were born and long before they
invented Spanx I really do applaud you
graduates for being in these seats when
I was a student at Hampton University I
almost did not graduate I was a few
credits shorter and a few dollars shy of
my rent so I decided it was time to go
but before leaving campus I wanted to
say goodbye to my professor and mentor
Linda Bolton Smith she would not say
instead she offered me room and board to
finish out the semester she was an
incredible example of a black woman and
showed me the discipline of being an
artist by waking up at 5 in the morning
and devoting the first two hours of her
day to her writing she taught me that
being an artist needs to remain
passionate studying not only your craft
but your culture and yourself seeking
out the unique details that add color
and pattern and texture to your stories
Linda exposed me to the famous artists
like whoa lace or Inca Alice Walker
Romare Bearden
and assured me that I could stand side
by side with any of them no matter what
stage in your career or life stay
connected to your professors mentors and
colleagues who support you seek out
people who believe in your talents and
can see you before you can see yourself
after Hampton I went back home to
Springfield Mass yes that's right some
of you might be moving back home too if
you are you can buy mom and dad the
mimosas at brunch back in my hometown I
was accepted for an internship in a
local theatre during this time I was
studying about design opportunities
around nation the woman who hired me for
my internship said Ruth you've gotta
focus on doing this you have to pursue
costume design so I got in my 89
Volkswagen Rabbit which had no airbags
and no a/c and I had to roll the windows
down like this and I headed west I was
awarded an internship in New Mexico I
enjoy across the entire country to do a
season at the Santa Fe Opera then I
decided to head to the Pacific Ocean
there in Los Angeles I connected with
friends also that I went to college with
at Hampton and one of my friends worked
in the film industry this was such an
adventurous time with friends and
supporting each other and figuring out
Hollywood graduates take an adventure
take chances and be unpredictable you
have your whole life to live by the book
if I hadn't have taken a chance all
those years ago I wouldn't be standing
before you today so take the chance
I began freelancing for Lula
Dan's company in South Central Los
Angeles doing costumes for a show that
was inspired by the music of Stevie
Wonder one night that same college
friend came to see the show and brought
Spike Lee when she introduced me he said
you can do the same thing you do for
theater for film and he encouraged me to
expand my talents I would go on to
costume design for graduate student film
projects at USC and it furthered my
training then one morning I got a call I
hello he said Ruth I said yes he said
Ruth this is the man of your dreams
I said Denzel no this is spike I want
you to be the costume designer for my
next film
starting with school day spike and I
have collaborated on 14 films
he showed me bravery through his
filmmaking from Radio Raheem to Malcolm
X we were making art by any means
he pushed me to remain conscious that
these articles of clothing were not only
costumes but also garments of protest
and symbols of truth do the right thing
is archived in the Library of Congress
because the message still resonates
today as it did in 1989 working with
Spike he challenges our creative
boundaries between researching the life
of Malcolm X beginning at the Department
of Corrections right here in
Massachusetts where he was held to his
pilgrimage we experienced in Egypt not
only did I learn to find my own unique
scent signature but I also learned to
use my art in service of something
bigger this then turned to into my first
Oscar nomination for Malcolm X
no matter whether you're in journalism
finance psychology art history pursue
your life work in service of something
bigger and you'll start to understand
your purpose for about ten years I
worked bicoastal creating New York
stories and broad comedies until I
landed a gig with the late great
director John Singleton from his
doorstep we projected a spotlight on the
LA experience not only did we explore
the gang culture of Los Angeles and baby
boy with rosewood we made filmmaking a
family affair
09:13 his intellect about moviemaking film and
09:17 art and his spirit and kindness towards
09:20 me and others is what made him a special
09:24 person take from his example and don't
09:28 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
09:49 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
10:29 Chanel
10:30 you're McQueen Fendi Louie Bhutan but
10:36 now but now it was Lorraine Hansberry
10:41 Langston Hughes Nikki Giovanni Sonia
10:45 Sanchez James Baldwin and so many others
10:50 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
11:13 personal library of books and photos
11:15 artifacts on african-american history
11:18 and culture that's when I was approached
11:20 by Debbie Allen and Steven Spielberg to
11:23 do Amistad the work on Amistad was a
11:28 culmination of all that study but
11:31 because it became a place of passion it
11:34 did not feel like work rather it felt
11:37 like a continued purpose and telling
11:40 stories that allow us to know ourselves
11:43 better this helped me earn my second
11:47 Oscar nomination yes be a student of
11:51 your passion yes you are graduating but
11:55 you will continue to be a student of
11:57 your passion throughout my career I
12:01 remained a student of people
12:03 storytelling history telling a student
12:06 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
12:20 nomination that's the entire span of
12:25 your lives during that time I learned
12:29 about self validation and to try to stay
12:32 too true to my calling and my purpose
12:35 when there's no outside source giving
12:38 you validation
12:40 and a feeling of worthiness you have to
12:43 look inward
12:43 I had to visualize and define what it
12:48 meant to be a costume designer for
12:50 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
13:21 through heartaches heartbreaks when it
13:25 came back to my work the artistry the
13:29 creativity the design when I would come
13:33 back to my foundation and my purpose
13:36 everything felt like it was right when
13:40 things got difficult I would say my
13:42 mantras to myself and you may do the
13:45 same define what it is that you are and
13:49 when times get difficult
13:52 you'll learn to rely on that foundation
13:55 and come back to your purpose when
14:00 Marvel called I thought why me I have
14:04 never done a superhero film you know
14:07 Marvel's like the CIA as you enter the
14:09 doors lock behind you I was in a meeting
14:13 with the producers Nate Moore and
14:15 director Ryan Coogler and I was having
14:18 trouble bringing up my design concepts
14:20 on the drop box but of course you just
14:23 can't login to Marvel you need to get
14:26 your eye scan fingerprinted blood drawn
14:31 that's when Ryan says to me Ruth I'm so
14:34 happy you are here that put me at ease I
14:38 really cherish that moment I felt like I
14:42 had audition for Black Panther when Ryan
14:45 saw Malcolm X as a young boy with his
14:48 father from Ryan's perspective between
14:52 Malcolm X I'm
14:53 Todd the butler Selma and Thurgood
14:55 Marshall I have been designing
14:58 superheroes
15:08 my work on Black Panther in many ways
15:11 has been a career-defining full circle
15:14 experience for me that journey of
15:18 Amerson myself into the beauty and depth
15:21 of so many ancient African cultures such
15:25 as the lassoo to the Masai the Himba
15:29 Zulu Turkana Tuareg Sam I
15:34 soory Dogon and many others and the
15:40 opportunity to weave their cultural
15:42 stories into the costumes was an
15:45 incredible honor all these traditions
15:48 merging and were presented in their
15:52 regality at the warrior falls and the
15:56 presence of knowing the impact that this
15:58 film could have on the world and for the
16:00 culture and then it actually paling in
16:04 comparison to what it really did 1.3
16:07 billion dollars worldwide Marvel may
16:16 have created the first black superhero
16:18 but through costume design we turned him
16:22 into an African King
16:28 everything I had learned and been
16:31 through set me up for that experience I
16:34 have been designing costumes for the
16:37 african-american narrative that took
16:39 place during a time when black people
16:41 were either slaves relegated to be the
16:45 help or fighting for their rights and
16:47 justice and here Marvel desired the look
16:51 and design of the film to be
16:53 authentically African Marvel encouraged
16:57 me to fully exercise my talent
17:00 imagination in merging the traditional
17:03 with the contemporary creating the Afro
17:07 Future through the costumes it was an
17:10 honor to showcase the emergent of
17:13 tradition and royalty and to reimagine
17:16 beauty and the empowered way women can
17:20 look and lead on-screen
17:28 it inspired me to reflect on my entire
17:32 body of work on the artistry and the
17:35 messages in all the costumes that I have
17:38 designed through the many years and
17:40 realize overall Mikan contribution to
17:44 afro future I was showcasing a point of
17:48 view the African culture and Dyess fora
17:51 and using technology intertwining it
17:54 with imagination together over the many
17:58 films with the many actors directors
18:02 cast and crew
18:05 we presented possibility we presented
18:09 afro future I have found my voice and
18:14 understood my purpose the work on black
18:18 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
18:32 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
18:47 student of your passion and it's about
18:51 being in control of the quality of art
18:54 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
19:06 design when I was walking off the stage
19:09 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
19:29 the ups and the downs the highs and the
19:34 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
19:59 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
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


Greg Gatlin
Office of Public Affairs

Andrea Grant
Office of Public Affairs