Before there was Wakanda in the Black Panther, there was Zamunda in Coming to America, so it’s fitting that Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter is the sartorial storyteller behind the sequel, Coming 2 America.
For more than 30 years, Ruth — who became the first Black woman to win an Academy Award in costume design for her work on Black Panther — has brought her character-centric, colorful costumes to pioneering films focused on Black culture and the African experience, including Amistad, Malcolm X, Selma, Love & Basketball and Do the Right Thing (just to, you know, name a few).
And, finally, it’s Coming 2 America‘s turn.
The long-awaited follow up to the 1988 cult comedy classic — known as much for its legendary characters as its opulent costumes — is finally available to stream on Amazon Prime Video. The film follows newly-crowned King Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and his trusted confidante Semmi (Arsenio Hall) as they embark on an all-new adventure that takes them from their royal African nation of Zamunda back to Queens, NY.
There’s a new generation of royals joining the star-studded cast in the sequel (including KiKi Layne, Jermaine Fowler and Teyana Taylor), giving Ruth the opportunity to amplify the opulence of African royalty through a fresh, modern lens.
The costumes proudly on display seem to tell an entire story within themselves — from the rich hues and embroidered fabrics to the bold patterns and lavish jewels.
Some of Ruth’s original sketches:
We sat down with Ruth to break down the vibrant costumes of Coming 2 America and hear her advice to up and coming black costume designers.
You’re known for character-centric costume design. Are you bringing that same mentality to Coming 2 America? What has that been like for you?
Yes! I am who I am and I have an aesthetic that I love which is African diaspora. I wanted to bring an aesthetic to Coming 2 America that was authentic, that felt like there was representation and that was also lighthearted. It definitely was a challenge to follow in the footsteps of such an iconic film.
It was very important to honor what they did in the first film with the pageantry. So pageantry was the biggest aesthetic that I examined and felt like we could offer for the new generation, something that they would say that they could relate to.
What were some of the influences behind the costumes designed specifically for this younger generation of the royals?
We were influenced by the power of women. We wanted to show Meeka as this woman who felt that she could inherit the throne and rule Zamunda. It was important to show that in her costumes as she fought against General Izzi and create something that was very female and very attractive, but also very strong, powerful and self-assured.
Another inspiration was royalty and family. The first movie was about family and legacy, and so it was important to examine how we look at legacy. What does the kingdom look like 30 years later? What kind of ruler is Akeem? So we created some different fabrics and prints to fit into this new era. We also felt that Zamunda was cruelty-free. In one of the scenes, the daughter references veganism, she says “the McDonald’s burger is vegan,” so we couldn’t have the animals on the shoulders in this movie or the furs. So instead, we 3D printed the lioness on the shoulder of Akeem with a beautiful scarf that trailed behind it.
Do you have a favorite costume that you created for the film?
I think my favorite was on Lisa, played by Shari Headley. She comes into the first scene and she has this big cone shaped collar with a long train and there’s a beautiful silk organza halter dress underneath it. It has a beaded neck piece and a beaded belt. Her clothes were really fun to design.
How much did you study the original film and find elements you wanted to bring in into this sequel?
If you loved the first film, you know it. But to look at it with fresh eyes as a designer, you kind of see where the influences lie. There were some things that we definitely had to remake because they were so iconic, like Akeem’s big necklace over his cape when he first arrived in America. The cape look on Akeem and Semmi was important to try to redesign that. Not that they have the same clothes that they had 30 years ago, but there was a similarity in the color in the combination between the two. You could feel coming to America when they were stepping into the barbershop for the first time. There was also little bit of an Indian influence in the first movie, you saw it in the saris. I really liked that aspect of it because I felt like you can’t go anywhere in the world and not see another culture. Everybody is kind of in an immersive world and embracing other cultures and differences.
What’s something you want people to take away from this film?
I want the fans to have a good time with the costumes. Costumes are fun, they create characters and form this fantasy world that’s almost like an escape from the real world. To be able to give people an escape from the environment that we’re living in right now is important to me. I want people to just have a good laugh!
At Rent the Runway, we focused on amplifying and celebrating Black culture and excellence. What does Black excellence mean to you? And do you feel like this film is an expression of that?
Oh, absolutely. I think the theme of the film is Black excellence. It was necessary for me to create an image that is aspirational, positive and uplifting, and also showcases Black royalty.
Any advice for up and coming or emerging black costume designers that are interested in getting involved in the industry?
Do it because you love it. Don’t do it because you want to move to Hollywood. You’re going to learn from every experience you have in costume design, and one experience is just going to make you stronger for the next one. You will bring a little bit of knowledge every time you take a step. So don’t be intimidated by a big step. Take a small step towards that step and you’ll get there. You’ll get where I am. Trust me, it’s attainable.
Coming 2 America is now streaming on Amazon Prime.