The 91st Academy Awards arrived this year on a swell of public distrust. The ceremony had been mired in an impressively wide array of controversies: There was the on-and-off hosting gig of the comedian Kevin Hart (which culminated in a hostless evening); and the creation, and subsequent indefinite delaying, of a Best Popular Film award, which some feared would be used to quell fan furor over perceived snubs. There was the (later backpedaled) announcement that technical awards would not be televised; and, of course, there were the sometimes questionable nominations themselves.
But in the very first words of her acceptance speech for the Best Costume Design trophy, the Black Panther designer Ruth Carter captured both the seeming intractability of the Academy’s barriers and the weight of her win. “This has been a long time coming,” she said with a hearty laugh. “Spike Lee, thank you for my start. I hope this makes you proud,” she added, referencing her first design gig, on the director’s 1988 film, School Daze.
“Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design we turned him into an African king,” Carter continued. “It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes. Thank you to the Academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead on screen.”
Carter’s speech was a confident and tonally appropriate celebration of her win that gracefully accounted for the historic nature of the award itself. For her “beautiful, positive, forward, colorful” looks that filled the universe of Wakanda, Carter became the first black person to win Best Costume Design (and the second black woman to win an award that night, after If Beale Street Could Talk’s Regina King, who took home the trophy for Best Actress in a Supporting Role).
The momentum didn’t slow there. The award immediately following Carter’s, for production design, went to Black Panther’s Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart. Like Carter, Beachler is also both the first black person nominated for the award and the first to win. Even before the midway point of the ceremony, Black Panther had achieved a previously unimaginable feat: receiving two technical awards—for the work of black women. Though the costume-design category has historically seen numerous wins for women, technical categories remain among the whitest of the awards each year. Regardless of its standing in the other four categories for which it is nominated, Black Panther radically (if also momentarily) shifted the paradigm with which black women’s craft is evaluated.
Carter’s speech was the first of three unabashed appreciations of “our genius director, Ryan Coogler.” (The composer Ludwig Göransson also thanked the visionary as he accepted the film’s Best Score award later in the evening.) Reading from her phone as she stood onstage with her hair in an immaculate fro-hawk, Beachler lavished praise upon him as well.
“Thank you so much, Ryan Coogler. I stand here stronger than I was yesterday; I stand here with agency and self-worth because of Ryan Coogler, who not only made me a better designer, a better storyteller, a better person,” she said tearily. “I stand here because of this man, who offered me a different perspective of life. Who offered me a safe space; who was patient and gave me air, humanity, and brotherhood. Thank you, Ryan. I love you.”
“I’m stronger because of Marvel, who gave me the opportunity to do my best, who supported the vision of this film,” she continued. “I give this strength to all of those who come next—to keep going, to never give up. And when you think it’s impossible, just remember to say this piece of advice I got from a very wise woman: I did my best, and my best is good enough.”
Taken together, the women’s speeches—and their wins—offer a prismatic look at the magnitude of Black Panther’s accomplishments. It’s comparatively easy to understand the importance of onscreen representation, but the work behind the scenes is equally urgent. That these women received their due, and acknowledged it as such while highlighting the need for it to continue beyond them, is particularly heartening in an awards landscape that has thus far failed to institute meaningful changes. Perhaps, for a moment, it’s enough.
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