Spotlight On: Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter
By Valli Herman
She has two Academy Award nominations, the respect of a generation of innovative filmmakers and a place in history.
Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter earned her Oscar nominations for “Amistad” and “Malcolm X,” and became the first African-American nominated in the costume design category. In May, she also was honored with an award that recognizes how her indomitable creative spirt and intelligence propelled her to the top of her field.
Last month, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America inducted Carter into its Alumni Hall of Fame during the organization’s annual national conference in Chicago. Jim Clark, president and CEO of BGCA said, “Ruth Carter is an unparalleled talent in her industry and has remained active in supporting Boys & Girls Clubs of America, serving as an ambassador to the community still to this day….” Clark also said Carter was chosen because “her story, her character and her drive have been instrumental in paving a great future for herself and continue to inspire thousands of club members.”
Carter not only made entertainment industry history, but she’s also helped shape the perception of black history in cinema.
Carter started her film career with director Spike Lee, beginning with “School Daze” in 1988. She’s also worked with directors Steven Spielberg, Lee Daniels, John Singleton and Ava DuVernay. Her IMDb profile lists 56 credits as a costume designer, the majority in film, but not the many seminal experiences in theater that shaped her early career. She’s adding to her resume with new projects in the pipeline, including “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” “Being Mary Jane,” and “Chiraq,” the latest movie from Lee.
Carter spoke about the influences on her life and work, beginning with her childhood years at the Boys & Girls Club in her hometown of Springfield, Mass.
Q: What do you remember about going to the Boys & Girls Club?
“I remember going to the Boys & Girls Club at 9 years old; my brother was 12 years old. We’d walk up the block, two blocks away at the top of the hill. Growing up in Springfield, it was a town that the world forgot.
“My mom was a single parent of eight. I was number eight, the youngest. My mom had a lot to do to provide for her children and also to give them some enrichment that didn’t cost her a lot of money. She took advantage of the fact that there was a Boys & Girls Club in our neighborhood where I would be safe.”
Q: How did you become familiar with sewing and clothing?
“My mom had a sewing machine. We didn’t grow up with a whole lot of money. My mother wasn’t taking me to the mall on Saturday to shop for a new outfit. If I wanted to go to a party, I had to make it. I learned how to read those cryptic Simplicity patterns–the Boys & Girls Club helped with that. They taught how to lay a pattern piece, how to find the symbol for the fold, the pinning.”
Q: How was education emphasized?
“I was in high school when my mom went back to school. She went into psychology and medical assisting. We always had medical and psychology books around the house. Whatever ailed us, we had a book to read about it. We had a learning environment in our house.”
Q: You were a theater arts major at Hampton University, in Hampton, Va. How did you discover costume design?
“I was in the major because I wanted to be an actress. The woman who had taught costume design left the year before. When I didn’t get a role in the play I wanted, the instructor asked if I’d like to do the costumes.”
Q: What did you do after college?
“I went back to Springfield and I got an internship at local theater. The East Coast is used to some pretty good theater–Tanglewood is on one side, and New York and Broadway are on the other. The theater in my home town, Stage West, was very good. It was the best internship on the planet. They gave you an apartment free of charge.
“I did a whole season as an intern, working in the costume shop. I had great mentors who were craftsmen and excellent cutters. They also directed and guided me to Santa Fe Opera, where I became an intern.
“I worked in the costume shop at day; at night I was a dresser for one of the actors backstage. That’s kind of what you do in opera–work in the shop during the day, and as a dresser at night. You built the costumes the actors were wearing in evening, so you knew how they were made and how to repair them.”
Q: And after Santa Fe, then what?
“I went to Los Angeles and worked for the L.A. Theatre Center. Again, because of my opera experience, I got a job there pretty easily. We built a lot of period clothes, I shopped a lot of fabrics…and I did a lot of aging and dyeing.”
Q: How did you meet Spike Lee?
“A dance performance came through the L.A. Theatre Center. The costumes looked like they could use my help. I found the choreographer and told them I would like to work on the show for them.
“It was when Spike Lee was brought there by a friend of mine. We were all the same age and he had just done one film, a student film, ‘She’s Gotta Have It.’ He was just an independent filmmaker friend of a friend. He started talking about filmmaking. We all went to a nightclub and went dancing. He gave me advice to get on a student thesis project to get experience on a movie set. I listened. After that, he’d send me letters and postcards. ‘Did you do it? Did you sign up?’ I eventually got on a USC student thesis project. It was the first time I’d heard ‘Quiet on the set, ‘Rolling,’ or ‘You’re in the shot.’ We went from that, to Spike continuing to keep in touch, to ‘School Daze.’”
Q: How did your first Oscar nomination (for “Malcom X” her sixth film with Lee) change you or your career?
“I was the first African-American ever to be nominated for a costume design award. It changed me, as a black woman; it changed history. That feels good.
“It is also made it available to other young people who want to choose a career in costume design; it made it available, attainable to them. Because I was a Boys & Girls Club member, because I grew up in a small town, it’s not something that people know they can do with their lives.
“The personal impact is really what it’s all about. When I got nominated, it validated me when I got accepted and noticed for my work on ‘Malcolm X,’ it legitimized who I was in the Hollywood landscape. Before, they probably didn’t know my name or didn’t care.”
Q: You’re known for your exhaustive research. Do you like it?
“I love the research part. I sometimes have to stop and say, ‘These characters are not going to pop off the page unless I do something. I have enough, and let the costumers help bring this to life.”
Q: What are you looking for?
“I feel like there is a surface level and there is a deeper level. Until you understand the surface — what we all know about the ‘50s or the South or the climate–then there is a deeper level that’s about the character and why people make the choices they make. What could they afford? How is it different from today?”
Q: You’ve done many films pertinent to black history. Do you feel you’ve been able to add to the understanding of that history in your portrayals?
“I hope so. That’s pretty much my aim. I try to realize things from a realistic point of view, from an experiential point of view, from an educated point of view, from an impassioned point of view. My aim it to affect people and to teach.
“You have a bit of responsibility to your community when you’re doing historical drama or something that has happened in real life. It’s important, when you’re recreating history that you try to make it not only entertainment, but you make it true–because it changes history and life.”