For more than 30 years, costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s creations have brought the African-American experience to life on the big screen, from 19th century slave ships in “Amistad” to 1980s Brooklyn in “Do the Right Thing,” to the Afrofuturistic land of Wakanda in “Black Panther.” Now, she’s bringing the spectrum of her work to Pittsburgh for a new exhibit called “Heroes & Sheroes: The Art & Influence of Ruth E. Carter in Black Cinema.”
The show opens Saturday at the Senator John Heinz History Center, showcasing more than 40 costumes from nine movies, and runs through Dec. 2.
“I’d been thinking about doing a retrospective for some time, and I really do love Pittsburgh, so it seemed like a comfortable place to test the waters for the exhibit,” Carter said in a recent phone interview.
Carter has worked on more than 50 films since she made the switch from designing for theater companies and dance troupes in the early 1980s, when Spike Lee hired her as a costume designer on “School Daze.” They’ve since collaborated on more than a dozen movies.
She’s also earned two Academy Award nominations for best costume design, first for Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1993 — which made her the first African-American nominated in that category — and for Steven Spielberg’s historical slave ship drama “Amistad” in 1998. She also was nominated for an Emmy for the 2016 reboot of “Roots.”
The exhibit will celebrate her extensive career, and showcase sketches and movie clips alongside the costumes from films including “Amistad,” ”Sparkle,” ”What’s Love Got to do With It,” ”The Butler,” ”Malcolm X,” ”Selma,” ”Do the Right Thing” and of course “Black Panther.”
“I think that costume design is somewhat of a mystery to people, and this is an opportunity to learn about the costume designer as an artist and a storyteller,” Carter said. “In the 35 years that I have been doing costumes, I’ve found there is a narrative and a voice to my creative process and the films that I have done, which have lined up to tell the story of African-Americans in this country.”
Carter was approached about bringing a retrospective to Pittsburgh by Demeatria Boccella, whose organization FashionAFRICANA focuses on art and fashion in the African diaspora for shows around the city. She learned about Carter from their mutual friend, the late actor Bill Nunn, who broke through in Spike Lee movies in the late 1980s.
“I was just so impressed with her; she’s done so much work in the industry, and the depth of that work is really amazing,” Boccella said.
Nunn, who died of cancer in 2016, was a longtime Pittsburgh resident who appeared in “Do the Right Thing” as Radio Raheem, who dies when choked by police during a street brawl in Brooklyn.
Carter said that among her favorite pieces in the retrospective is Radio Raheem’s hand-painted “Bed-Stuy Do or Die” T-shirt.
For Boccella, bringing Carter’s work to Pittsburgh was twofold: to honor the designer and to inspire young visitors.
Boccella said she knew she wanted to get into the fashion industry ever since she was a child, but couldn’t find fellow African-American role models in her community.
“I wanted to see people who looked like me, doing work I aspired to do and it was very hard,” she said. “It is my passion and part of my journey to create and present those opportunities for the next generation.”
Carter says she hopes visitors take away from the exhibit something they didn’t know before, and perhaps find inspiration from her own personal backstory.
“It’s the story of a girl who had a dream and she pursed her dream and went all the way, and look what she was able to create from a single-parent household,” she said. “If I can do it, they can do it. You can live out your dream.”
Could your medical treatment one day be tailored to your DNA? That’s the promise of “personalized medicine,” an individualized approach that has caught the imagination of doctors and researchers over the past few years. This concept is based on the idea that small genetic differences between one person and another can be used to design tailored treatments for conditions as diverse as cancer and schizophrenia.
In principle, “personalized” is not meant to mean one person but not another, though that may not turn out to be the case. Existing genetic and medical research data conspicuously underrepresent certain populations.
This finding turned long-held assumptions about racial imbalances in mental illness on its head. It could not be explained by economic circumstances, suggesting that there are other factors at play, perhaps even genetic factors. Suicide is a complicated personal act, but science has shown that genes play an important role.
This unexpected result may have implications for prevention and treatment based on genes – in other words, personalized medicine. But the state of current genetic research suggests that African-Americans will likely miss out on many of the potential future benefits of personalized medicine.
Few experts have studied the possible genetic causes for African-American suicide, focusing instead on environmental and social reasons.
While most mental illnesses such as depression are first diagnosed in adulthood, they actually have their origins early in development, as genes and the environment interact to shape the brain of a growing fetus. For example, my colleagues and I published a study in May showing that genes and pregnancy problems combine to increase the likelihood of schizophrenia.
This should cause some alarm, because African-American women have much higher rates of pregnancy complications. Black infants die at twice the rate of white infants. Again, this is not explained by socioeconomic reasons.
In short, a higher rate of pregnancy problems likely puts African-Americans at increased risk of developing mental illnesses, perhaps explaining the noticeable increased rate of suicides. Additional genetic data on this population could potentially illuminate the issue.
To better understand genes that increase the risk for mental illness, researchers study the brains of people who have died. They examine how genetic differences could have led to changes in the brains of people who developed these conditions. This is one of the best ways to understand any brain disorder at a biological level.
But African-Americans are underrepresented in large-scale genetic and neuroscience studies. One 2009 analysis revealed that 96 percent of participants in large genetic studies were of European descent. When researchers looked at the matter a couple of years ago, they found that the proportion of people with African ancestry in these studies had increased by only 2.5 percent. Similarly, studies of African-American brains are almost nonexistent.
Why the low participation rate? One reason is that researchers favor populations that are genetically more homogeneous to ensure a study’s accuracy. Individuals of European ancestry are more alike genetically than are African-Americans.
Some experts have posited that African-Americans are less likely to participate in genetic studies due to a lack of trust with the medical community.
At the Lieber Institute for Brain Development, where I work, people can donate the brains of family members who wished to contribute to scientific research. We have the largest collection of African-American brains donated to study mental illness, though it’s relatively small in comparison to the availability of Caucasian brains. In our experience, the donation rate for African-American families is comparable to that of white families, suggesting that lack of trust may not be as widespread as believed.
Without studies focused on the African-American brain, scientists will struggle to fully understand how any possible unique genetic risk in the African-American population translates into prevention and treatment for virtually all disorders that involve the brain, including suicide.
Researchers have to invest in correcting this shortcoming before the personalized medicine train is so far out of the station that the African-American community cannot get on it.