SPOTLIGHT April 2020: Ruth Carter, Costume Designer, Style Setter, Mentor
Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth Carter is the sort of woman who has carved an impressive career in an industry that had rarely had people of color in her position. Women of color are rarer still. She’s reached the height of her aspirational dreams in turning what she’s passionate about into her life’s work, while changing society through the films she has chosen and clearing the way for acceptance of women of color in collaborative artistic positions of power in Hollywood.
Carter has been breaking barriers and building her reputation in the film industry for over 30 years. In 1992, she was the first woman of color to be nominated for an Academy Award in costume design, for Malcolm X. She was subsequently similarly recognized for 1997’s Amistad. And she was rewarded with an Oscar win for 2018’s Black Panther. In doing so, she made history by becoming the first woman of African-American descent to receive the honor. With scores of other nominations and wins to her name, she is actively opening doors for up-and-coming artisans while inspiring them with her creativity, talent, and determination.
Throughout her career, Carter has been the go-to designer for costuming that fits historical African and African-American stories, but she’s completed a wide variety of projects that have kept her fascinated and perpetually raising her own bar.
Keeping Good Company
She’s worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood, including John Singleton, Joss Whedon, Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Lee Daniels, Robert Townsend, and Steven Spielberg, but she has a special place in her heart for her mentor and friend, director Spike Lee, through whom she got her start. She has collaborated with Lee on more than ten movies, and it is through that collaboration that she learned to always create with purpose. That is a lesson that she’s carried with her, and one that has inspired her commitment to mentorship and generosity towards those with whom she works and those coming up in the field.
Strong Role Models and Strong Work Ethic
“Thank God my mother was a patient, empathetic woman.” says Carter. “I owe a lot to her for giving me the patience and the openness to see people not for their shortcomings, but for who they really are. It’s like a magic potion to dress an actor in costume. They began to transform and see themselves as someone else.”
That quote explains so much about Carter as an artist and a person. When Carter and I spoke in early March, she was sheltering in place in LA, and specifically mentioned concern for her 98-year-old mother. That’s no surprise. It is through her mother’s example, as well as her siblings’ help, that the designer grew into the hardworking, determined woman and formidable artist she has become.
“My mother went back to college after her youngest, me, went to high school. She went back to school to get her degree. She’d drive my brother and I down the hill to high school, and then circle around to her community college, and we’d all study on our dining room table together. My mother was studying medical assisting, she had these big long words that we’d have to help her remember. You could pick them apart and every part had a meaning, these big long medical terms. We’d help her with her tests, when she helped us with ours. I think seeing her after raising 8 children, put herself back in a college environment at 50 years old, told me that it’s never too late, and I can do anything I set my mind to.”
Carter says her brothers, who were artists, always had art supplies around the house that she could use, but more than that, they gave her support, and taught her a sort of artistic discipline early on. “They showed me the patience that art and drawing take, in order to get a beautiful result. I could take a pencil and copy a picture or draw something in great detail for hours, and I’d even come back to it the next day. My brothers would look at it, and give me praise. Carter recalls. I knew very young that drawing was something that I could do, so I felt like I was closer to the arts.”
Carter went to Hampton College, starting out in education, but two years in, realized theater arts were more of interest. She discovered that her childhood had been great training to work in theater. “Having had that family life as a young girl, working out artistic problems alone, figuring things out and really getting praise for it afterwards, it gave me the sense that theater wasn’t much different. You needed to hone in on the craft, dig in, study the part. At first I wanted to be an actress, so studying lines and things like that was no different than drawing pictures as a child. You spend time with the details of the structure, and you knew you pushed yourself to understand what makes it real. What makes these things come to life?”
The Start of A Career Trajectory
One fateful production changed the trajectory of her life. She was asked to do costumes for a college play. “I was able to take that love for drawing with me in that pursuit. I had taught myself to sew a little bit as a kid, I wasn’t afraid to sit down at a sewing machine. I knew how to work with patterns. I studied those cryptic notes of ‘center front’ and ‘center back’ and figured all that out as a kid, so once I was asked to do the costumes for a play, I felt like it was the sum of all the things I had enjoyed doing as a kid. I was very independent at it, and I managed to get it done, and people enjoyed it, so there I was, a costume designer all of a sudden on campus, and every production that was done I was the costume designer. If the music department did a musical, they came to me. Fraternities and sororities that were doing step competitions came to me, I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the popularity because before then I wasn’t very popular at all.”
Creating with a Purpose
Carter points to her work with Spike Lee as one of the defining aspects of her career, especially as it relates to instilling a sense of purpose and intention in every personal and artistic choice. She began her longtime collaboration with him with 1988’s School Daze, her first film as costume designer.
“Starting with Spike Lee in the beginning was pretty much a gift, because he instilled a sense of purpose in our work. He always had a purpose to why we were creating what we were creating, and therefore, we all had a responsibility in that. We weren’t just creating costumes, we were creating garments of protest, items that manifest themselves as truth to our story, and he always wanted to have a sense of uplifting the race. That was very very clear. Whatever you were doing, it was very important that we had a political message. On his first film I did a lot of t-shirt and sweatshirt design. We were doing Mandala and Soweto t-shirts, and we were really about uplifting the race. We were definitely creating garments of protest.”
The next year, she applied her talents to the now-classic film Do The Right Thing. Carter explains, “When we did Do the Right Thing, Spike had read about the incidents of racial tension in Brooklyn and Howard Beach surrounding Tawana Brawley. He wanted to create a film with his voice during that time, so he wrote Do the Right Thing. It took place on one hot summer day. We always had a dossier from Spike that let you know why we were doing what we were doing. There was a lot of playfulness in there, too, with Spike, who has a great sense of humor, and definitely an artistic direction that is all his own, but at the same time introduced us to some of the greatest artists that I think I may have never met face-to-face. I was always very appreciative of that, of meeting Odeta and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and MosDef. They were people who were part of cultural change. Sometimes when you’re a part of a project, you can look back, and see that you were part of something that was a contribution to the culture, but it was different on Spike Lee films. You knew while you were doing it that you were contributing to the culture.”
Paying it Forward
Carter learned through working with Spike Lee just how essential the expression ‘Each One Teach One’ can be, in an industry that, until recently, has not made diversity much of a priority. She has mentored a number of artists and designers, and continues to educate and train those coming up in the field.
“I’ve always said that I wanted my experience to be reflected in my crew, and that is not all one thing, not all white, not all black. With my work with Spike Lee, we always took on interns. That gave me a sense of responsibility to give back. Every department always had one, sometimes two, interns in the department. I kind of kept that going. Now we hire them as PAs, but they are definitely in a position to learn this business, and they eventually step out and become designers. I have a handful of people out there that have worked with me, and I’m really proud of it. I’m proud when I see them pass me by, going to the studio services to pick some clothes out for their projects. It makes me feel really proud.
A Real-Life Aesthetic
In designing costumes for films with historical figures like Martin Luther King, John Quincy Adams, and Malcolm X, Carter’s attention to detail and commitment to research has always been intense. She attends to elements as small is the tilt of a hat or the way a scarf is tied, and turns that passion for detail and interest into historical accuracy in every project she takes on. Carter’s designs are especially compelling because she brings real-life quirks and nuances into the equation as design elements. It comes from her love of and passion for African-American history, which she studied at school.
“I think that I’ve always looked at pictures that I think are a little bit more “Hollywood,” and I thought that they lacked the character that I saw when I looked at a lot of pictures from history. At one point, I was a historian at Colonial Williamsburg in their acting program. We studied real people, what they were going through, and how they lived. My feeling about costume is that it is a reflection of who you are, your environment, and what you can afford. It definitely told the story of you. When I witnessed things that didn’t have a story, I missed it. I wanted to see more. I feel like good costume design is a way of understanding a person a lot better.”
Looking to the Future
It’s true that Black Panther was her first Oscar win, but directors have long known Carter’s hard work and talent will elevate any film she takes on. She is an artist who is always excited about her next endeavor. Her latest is Coming 2 America, slated for release in August 2020; It’s the long-awaited sequel to a fan favorite, 1988’s Coming to America. She will design for the whole cast, which includes Eddie Murphy, an actor she’s worked with a lot, most recently on Dolemite Is My Name.
Carter clearly believes every new project offers an opportunity for personal growth and artistic expansion. About Coming 2 America she says, “It was amazing. It was the most intimidating experience I’ve ever had, because the film was so beloved, even more so than Black Panther! People went to theaters to see Black Panther dressed as characters from Coming to America. That’s how much they loved that movie. I just wanted to meet the more sophisticated palette that I think people have now. Even though they loved the comedy and story in the first movie, and loved the look of the costumes, I couldn’t copy it, because it was based of a different kind of time. We didn’t know very much about Africa. It was the first time we saw African royalty. I feel like I took my Black Panther brain and said ‘if Wakanda was the capital of the leading African nation in technology and strength of army, then Zamunda is the fashion capital.’ I was very world-inclusive in my approach. I brought in a lot of fashion designers from all over the world, and they collaborated with me. We had so much to make in so little time I had to come up with a plan that was world-inclusive, which was exciting. I had East Indian designers, South African designers and we all collaborated on getting the items manufactured.”
Why We Chose Her
There are few women in Hollywood who fearlessly express a mix of kindly openheartedness and fierce artistic determination. No doubt those traits helped Ruth Carter to rise to the very top of her profession, but they also indicate her willingness to help those coming up find their footing, much as Spike Lee helped her find her own. Carter is a trailblazer. She is an artist of vision, but more than that, she is an artist who has brought truth and authenticity to African American stories told in film in a way that has expanded understanding and acceptance. There’s no better way to be an artist, than to change how people see the world through your art. Ruth Carter does that, and will continue to do so, and for that, film lovers should be grateful. We at the Alliance of Women Film Journalists certainly are.
— Leslie Combemale