'Black Panther' Costume Designer Ruth Carter on Her Third Oscar Nomination and Why Costumes Should Not Look Like Costumes [Interview]

To read the list of films that costume designer Ruth Carter has worked on in her 30-year-plus career is to move through the history of black cinema in that time period, having worked extensively (in some cases, almost exclusively) with such filmmakers as Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, John Singleton and Lee Daniels. This week, she received her third Oscar nomination for her groundbreaking costume designs in director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (she was also nominated for Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad), and she recently completed costuming work for the Craig Brewer-directed Rudy Ray Moore biopic Dolemite Is My Name, starring Eddie Murphy.

Carter began her film career working on Lee’s School Daze in 1988, and the two worked together on upwards of a dozen features, including Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Clockers, Crooklyn, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, Oldboy, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, and Chi-Raq, although oddly not BlackKkKlanman, because she was too busy working on Black Panther. Other career highlights for Carter include costume designs for I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, The Five Heartbeats, What’s Love Got to Do with It, The Meteor Man (her first attempt at a superhero costume), Cobb, Money Train, Love & Basketball, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Shaft (2000), Baby Bay, Four Brothers, Black Dynamite, Serenity (yes, the Joss Whedon Firefly movie adaptation), Selma, and Marshall. Some of her most recent designs were seen last year on the Paramount network’s series Yellowstone, starring Kevin Costner, which features a great deal of Western wear, something that was a first for Carter.

/Film walked through Carter’s entire career with her during this extensive interview conducted last year during the Chicago International Film Festival, during which she was honored with a tribute to her groundbreaking work. Naturally, we go into great detail about her landmark costumes for Black Panther, but we also cover her longtime collaborations with Spike Lee and discuss the places where she seeks and receives inspiration for her designs.

You probably don’t get to do many press tours or junkets the way you did for Black Panther, which came out nine months ago, and you’re still talking about it.

Filmmakers have their filmmaking life and they have this huge world around them, this huge bubble, which I’m experiencing with Black Panther, in that the popularity of the film carries you away. Normally, when the film is done, it’s done for me. The filmmakers get to enjoy the blossoming of their films; they go on the press tours of their films. So there’s this other side of life that they’ve enjoyed, whereas I go back to my life that I enjoy, that is nice and quiet—me and my dog—and life goes back to normal. But life hasn’t gone back to normal since Panther came out [laughs].

The first time most of us saw your work were in the films of Spike Lee. How did you two connect initially, and how has your working relationship evolved over the years? At this point, you must be one of his most trusted allies.

I would hope so. From the moment Spike and I met as filmmakers and collaborators back in 1986 or 1987. I met him before School Daze, maybe a year or so before. Once he told me about it, I started researching it right away. We didn’t actually come on payroll for months. It’s just what you did as a dumb kid [laughs], working for free, but it helps you hone in your craft. Spike and I first met at Lula Washington Dance Theatre in South Central Los Angeles, where I was a costume designer for this little-known dance company, and it was popular and gained local notoriety. He came to see a performance, and we were all around the same age—he was a young filmmaker, I was a young thespian. I graduated with a theater degree, so I was more interested in that and not film, but we all connected, hung out, and he was talking to me about getting film experience. He kept saying “Go to USC or UCLA, go to their senior film department and sign up for a senior thesis project, and then you’ll get experience being on a movie set.” Even hearing that, I was like “I respect theater and opera designers; I want to be that.” It took me a minute, but I finally did go to USC and worked on a student film on the weekends.

With Black Panther, people are talking a great deal about the use of color in the costumes and how every color means something. But you’ve been doing that since Do the Right Thing.

It’s all about color and pop culture. Especially then, when colleagues and fellow costumers would say to me “You use color.” And I was looking at these designers who used grey and beige, and I used to think they were so much more sophisticated than I am. But every time I’d get a project, I’d gravitate toward the color. Everybody has a way of understanding color, and I really worked at my understanding of how to use it effectively. Every director I’ve worked with has wanted me to use color, from Spike to Keenan Wayans to Robert Townsend, all in my early years. Eventually I grew to understand that that’s going to be my aesthetic, and I don’t mind it. But it’s more difficult to use than when you minimize your palette, and we’ve done some real experimental things along the way, especially with Spike Lee movies and color. I was able to grow.

Do you prefer costuming for period films, where you actually have reference points in history, versus something modern where you start from scratch?

Modern and period both have a look about them, and it’s really about the direction that the script wants to go in. You can take a period piece have a stylistic approach to it. It depends on what the filmmaker wants to do with the color. One isn’t more difficult than the other; we always start with a palette, we always do the research, even if it’s modern. We are storytellers, so we’re always building characters. The breakdown, the layout and the approach is very similar from period to modern. You gather the clothes, perhaps more so with period because you have to dress so many more people—you can’t have people come in in their own clothes.

I would love to watch your researching process. That seems like it would be the most fun part of the experience. And your workshop must have stuff covering every square in of wall space.

Oh, yes. Everybody must be inspired. I have to inspire the masses.

Were you too busy doing other things to take part in BlacKkKlansman, because there were so many great opportunities for costume on that film.

I was doing other things, but what’s wonderful about 40 Acres [Lee’s production company] is that Spike takes people that he’s groomed and gives them opportunities. I have blossomed [laughs], so if it gives someone else an opportunity to spread their wings and work on these projects that are a little bit lower budget, that’s the goal. I still do film at every budget level, but I’m happy for the opportunities it affords my protégés and other people.

I didn’t know you worked on Yellowstone. What was that like for you?

Yes, when I first talked to [co-creator] Taylor Sheridan, he gave me the rundown on Western wear. It’s not like you would think. You can’t just go to Western costumers and say, “Let me see your Western stuff.” There is a modern cowboy today that wears hip-hop clothes as modern as anyone. What I learned about chaps and the different styles—the modern versus the old-school. Belt buckles are like a badge of honor. There is a language to Western wear that I was getting educated on as I went along, and it was wonderful. Also, the Native American community was amazing. Being in Utah and Montana and knowing the difference between the Crow Native American and what they’re doing versus what those in the Southwest did. Yellowstone was a great project, and I like that I’m still learning.

During the Black Panther junket, it was fun to see you doing interviews alongside Ryan Coogler and the actors. From the first trailer, that’s what people focused on—the costumes. What was the first conversation with Ryan about? Did he have ideas already?

That first conversation was the interview, and the ideas were on me because I was trying to get the job. I had a Dropbox folder full of images. There was no script that was shared with me because it was just an interview. I went into Marvel, which is like the CIA, and I couldn’t open my Dropbox because of a firewall. So they managed to get the folder open for me, which caused me to panic a bit. As we were waiting, Ryan said, “I’m really glad you’re here.”

He must have know who you were.

Yes, but I’d never done a superhero film or a fan of comic book. I wasn’t not a fan, but I didn’t know a lot of about Black Panther. My brothers had Spider-Man and other superhero comics. I my room, there was Archie and Little Lotta [laughs]. I wanted to be Betty or Veronica, so I had to bone up on the comics. Finally, I got my folder open and I started showing him images. We were in a separate room, in an office inhabited by no one. There was nothing on the walls. And by the end of the presentation, he walked me to his office and some of the same images that were in my folder were also in his office.

So what were some of those images?

Afro-future, African diaspora, beautiful modern images of dark skin and saturated color and gold. Images of Africa and tribal masks, animals—it was Wakanda, basically.

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