Ruth E. Carter is the award-winning costume designer behind some of the most popular films in black culture—Malcolm X, Amistad, Do the Right Thing, and Selma, to name a few. So it should come as no surprise that she was tapped to lend her incomparable talent to design costumes for Marvel Studios’ Black Panther —one of the most anticipated movies of 2018, featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Michael B. Jordan and a few more Hollywood heavyweights.
I caught up with Ruth to learn about how she navigated her way through Hollywood, the career advice she received from Spike Lee and tips for women looking to break barriers in film and entertainment.
Note: Initially, this article was published for Black Enterprise Magazine.
What inspired you to become a costume designer?
I was in college when I discovered costume design as an actual career path. But costume designing was a summary of my experiences.
My mom was a counselor for the city so she knew people who had all types of problems. She would stop and talk to everyone, so her empathy for others –gave me permission to open my eyes and see people for all of their complexities. Having had that as a young person and going to college studying theatre—I could read a script about a person and see a version of how they might look like. I realized I enjoyed costume designing as a major at Hampton University but realized I was groomed to be a storyteller at a young age. People love a good story.
When it comes to hiring you for your costume designing services, how does the process work with film studios?
Directors hire me—but they don’t want to impede my creativity.
When I first get the script, they give me broad strokes (direction). They may say “We want realism or this has to be incredible, intense, wild, and colorful. etc. So the first thing I do is read through the scenes of the scripts. I get into the words and the characters. I laugh and cry with it. This helps me determine when to be pronounced. For instance, if the scene is Harlem 1940’s, and Thurgood Marshall is sitting with his wife, and Langston Hughes walks in, I look up Langston Hughes in 1940’s. Then I look for great photographers of that era—I discover Teenie Harris. Then I look at his body of work and notice he was photographing people candidly. These pictures were in black and white so I go to the original collections and they give me a direct path to the tones and brightness and dullness of saturation or desaturated of colors that will create a1940’s landscape.
Which moments have been most helpful in getting you to this point in your career?
When I started there were very few people who were doing costume designing. I looked but I couldn’t find them. My mentors were unconventional people like Spike Lee. He said to go to the University of Southern California, then go to the University of Southern California sign up for a student film and you’ll be on a set with all the professional equipment that all the studios use and you’ll be the costume designer. That’s where you’ll get your training.
Then he said let’s go shopping and he always reminded about buying in multiples—nobody else told me that. For instance, for a scene where people get into a fight—you might have to have 5 of the same shirts because movies shoot out of sequence so if the actor bloodies or dirties that shirt—that shirt has to stay exactly like it is for the scenes that follow. But if we haven’t shot the scenes that come before it—you need a clean version.
I learned this all from Spike he was my greatest support and my biggest mentor and I am indebted to him for this life and career that I have now.
During an award dinner speech, you said you wanted your life and career to serve as a model for others to find their artistic vision and embrace it. Can you share how a young designer could put that into practice every day?
I would tell them there are no obstacles in your way. When you believe that, you’ll find a way to do it. I remember meeting Beery Alexander –who won an Oscar for his editing in the Madonna video. I asked him: “How did you get there?” He said, “Just don’t stop.” This is really difficult for a lot of young people. They get a little obstacle then they stop and change direction. If you really believe and have the passion that this is something that is in you, then you have to find direction. If there’s an obstacle in your way, examine it and keep going.
How can women creatives continue to help other young women break barriers in film and entertainment?
Sometimes women want to compete. We can’t see 2 queen bees in the hive. Instead of wanting to support we want to compete. But we have to walk away from the idea that this is a competition. We are not prominent in this industry. We have to understand that this is a male-driven industry. To get the same quality work done—we have to be supportive of each other. We have to give the same percentage of passion drive and blood sweat and tears that you would give any other time–sometimes we forget that when we see someone who mirrors us. If you see someone of the same color—rejoice in that because she went to hell.
To blaze a trail I had to I had to pay dues. There were times that I had to bulldoze my way through bad attitudes, disgruntled actors, and directors who weren’t sure I was doing a good job. So if you see another woman who is directing or producing, believe me, she had to break down barriers. So team up and become a sisterhood.
I’ve worked for women directors, Ava Duvernay being one of them. When women help women it becomes a sisterhood. The collaboration like Oprah helping Ava with Queen sugar and the storytelling—that’s women helping women.
You’ve been in the business for 30 years, what do you think is the traditional career advice that is overrated?
“Follow your passion. Follow your dreams.”
Sometimes your dreams are all over the place—so you can’t follow it. I used to want to be a dermatologist. You can dream but you need to clear your path for one thing. You have a lot of starving artist out there but real artist are not starving.
Costume designing is a business. Real artist have to understand the technique as well as the business. You are not on your own island, there are other artists you have to collaborate with. You have to learn how to compromise. When you realize you can still get your point across and be a part of a community or company or team of filmmakers then you’re ready to make a living at it.