Black History Month Spotlight: How Oscar Winner Ruth E. Carter Builds a Team That Reflects Her World

For the past three years, in honor of Black History Month, FN has celebrated African Americans in footwear and fashion with our ‘Spotlight’ features series. For 2020 we’ve added a theme: Diversity as a Superpower. This year, we’ll highlight movers and shakers who’ve used their voice to drive change and create access for others. Also new for 2020, FN commissioned New Jersey-based artist, Briana Woodburry-Spencer, to design the series’ logo.

“I prayed for this night, honestly — not only just for being a hardworking costume designer but what it would mean for young people coming behind me.” Ruth E. Carter shared this message with the press after her history-making Oscar win last year. She’s the first black winner of the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

While Carter flooded the news then, for cinema and fashion fans alike, her name has been a mainstay in the industry for decades. She’s an iconic image-maker and the her body of work speaks for itself: Do The Right Thing, B*A*P*S, Selma, and Black Panther. It was the last of which that earned her the Academy Award, but her legacy far precedes a single — albeit record-breaking — film.

In fact, legacy is also something Carter is building beyond just her long list of beloved and iconic movies. And when FN spoke with the designer, Carter shed further light on the challenges of entering the industry as one of few people of color to do so at the time as well as her own strong conviction regarding her ability to tell stories. Her latest piece of work, Netflix’s Dolemite Is My Name, reflects this message as well as it tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a pioneer in rap music and the blaxploitation film genre.

Here, Carter addresses how she brought Dolemite‘s characters to life and how she’s building a teams that reflect the world she lives in. After all, she may be a “first” but she’s leaving the door wide open behind her.

As Dolemite Is My Name features a largely African American cast, what are some of the elements of costume design that reflect what the African American community embraced culturally, as well as stylistically, at that time in history?

“During that time, it was 1973, and we had gone from the Civil Rights of the ‘50s and ‘60s, to the Black Panther Party, and we were changing again. In the ’70s, the afro became a standard. It wasn’t necessarily something that said you were radical because it had entered into like the mainstream. There were a lot of people who were I’m monopolizing on the ‘70s urban story. There were a lot of films that were produced in what they call the blaxploitation era during this time: Shaft, Super Fly, The Mack. All those films were coming into the fray. There was an economic surge and interest in African American films that portrayed us as pimps but they also had a radical message that never left us. Even in The Mack, he’s feeding his community and doing stuff like that. So as far as what this speaks to in terms of the cultural dynamic or the trajectory that we were on in terms of our community and change, I think it was more of a creative space. We were learning by the example of people like Rudy Ray Moore who was doing independent film. He was actually outside of blaxploitation because he was making the film on his own. He was raising the money on his own and he paid back his debtors. It was a totally different way of making films. He was revolutionary.

In the ’70s — that’s when I was about 12-13 years old — I remembered it as being very self-expressive, very visual, and also culturally, you were taking your stance as a black person. You didn’t have to be ashamed, you didn’t have to straighten your hair. You could wear your hair natural. That’s kind of the residual of the Black Power movement and all that was still resonant in the ‘70s. But there was also the dandy, the pimp, the ho that became this popular look. You look at a prize fight in the ‘70s, and the people who are coming into the arena all look like Dolomite. Pimps, hats, fur coats, boots, chains. There was this whole economic surge I think that happened in the mid-‘70s that popularized the urban story. There were a lot of transitions that were happening around in the ‘70s: the hippies, everybody was kind of proclaiming and shaping and grooming their look as their community. And that’s what also is seen in Dolomite. You really see the hippies, the students from UCLA. You see the conservatives, and they still have wide ties and wide lapels. There was this whole transitioning and also shaping of what people thought of themselves, how their image would be representing them by their outward appearance.”

Oscar Winner Ruth Carter
CREDIT: David Fisher/Shutterstock

How did you find your voice in this industry as a woman of color? And how have you leverage it to be your superpower?

“I just kept pushing through. I never thought of myself as anything other than a costume designer. You know, ‘one monkey don’t stop no show’. If something doesn’t work out, you keep pressing through to the next one and you learn from your mistake. That’s what pushed me all the way and I felt like I deserve to be here. And I admired a lot of the costume designers who were making movies. There were just none that really looked like me, but that was okay. I still thought of costume design as a colorless profession and that I could do it because I had stories with me. When I looked at Lady Sings The Blues, the way that Diane Ross portrayed Lady Day, I really love that movie so much that I went back and researched Billie Holiday and listened to her recordings and then I thought, she doesn’t look anything like that. She doesn’t sound anything like that. I love the movie but I took that as my cue that if I were to do Lady Day, I could imagine it in more of a realistic, more real space, than a glossy space.”

What can the industry do to overcome the barriers that exist for people of color?

“There’s always going to be barriers. There’s no place on earth without barriers. So we have to band together. We have to support each other [with] Internships and PA positions…I feel like it’s my responsibility to make sure my crew is representative of who I am. And if I’m a person that supports learning, then I have to have someone learning in my department. I’m a person who supports diversity, then I need to have all the colors of the rainbow in my department, in my world. And so that’s what I tried to do.”

And lastly, you’re designing the costumes for the new Coming to America film. What can we expect?

I keep telling everybody, don’t expect the first one. This is a whole new thing was for the new generation that has never seen the first.”

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