Film Forward

Meet The Oscar-Nominated Costume Designer Who Brings Famous Civil Rights Leaders To Life With Fashion

"[The character] is not physical until [the actor] comes into my room."

When it comes to capturing the heart of civil rights leaders — beyond actors embodying them, directors exploring them, and the writers using words to tell their stories — it's up to the costume designer to cross the T's and dot the I's. One such person, Ruth E. Carter, has been working in film for 30 years and has used fashion to bring Malcolm X in Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall to life on the big screen.

The 57-year-old told A Plus the fashion side of the movie industry was always intriguing because she has always loved good stories and how natural being creative came to her. Carter grew up as the product of a single-parent household that couldn't necessarily give her everything she wanted — which is why she learned how to sew early on, to give herself "a big orange fuzzy jacket to wear to some crazy dance or something" because her mom was unable to provide it.

Upon arriving in Hollywood after school, she was able to work in the movies where her reputation — often for creating looks for historical figures — grew and grew. The key for designing for these true-to-life characters, Carter explained, was forming a unique collaboration between herself and the actors playing the parts. The actors, she said, "may have put a lot of thought into how they want to portray the character," but, unlike her, "they have no idea of these details of the clothes, the fashion of the era."

Sketch and scene from Malcolm X.
Sketch and scene from Malcolm X. Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter; Warner Bros.

Starting with Spike Lee's Malcolm X in 1992, Carter showed the evolution of Malcolm X through what clothes Denzel Washington was wearing. This meant a huge color palette switch, going from bright and elaborate zoot suits in the beginning — which he wore during the more tumultuous years — to simple dark-black suits with skinny ties — to show "his spiritual quest" of going on a Hajj and changing from the Nation of Islam to just Islam.

Sketch and scene from Malcolm X.
Sketch and scene from Malcolm X. Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter; Warner Bros.

Then, for Ava DuVernay's Selma in 2014, she made David Oyelowo look more like Martin Luther King Jr. by having his shirt collar a little bit tight "so that the meat of his neck would hang over his collar." Besides getting that detail correct, it was also important for Carter to get across that "these people were almost like missionaries."

"Martin Luther King Jr. studied Gandhi and they came out of the 1960s when civil rights and protest meant you walk miles," Carter added. "It was important that his costumes didn't overwhelm his words — but at the same time were the silhouettes of the times."

A scene from Selma.
A scene from Selma. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

With 2017's Marshall, from Reginald Hudlin, Carter said Chadwick Boseman (yes, Black Panther himself) knew he didn't favor Thurgood, so he really wanted "to get the essence of the man, get his swagger, and portray him as he was during this time of his life." This, for Carter, meant using trench coats, hats, shoes, collar bars, and tie clips — evocative of the way men dressed in the 1940s when the film takes place.

"It's definitely a collaboration," Carter explained. "[The actors] may have put a lot of thought into how they want to portray the character, but they have no idea of these details of the clothes, the fashion of the era. [The character] is not physical until [the actor] comes into my room. It's all thought before then."

Sketch and scene from Marshall.
Sketch and scene from Marshall. Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter; Open Road Films

Getting all of this right is important to the overall feel of the movie, Carter said, bringing up the miniseries Roots as a prime example. Carter explained how the 1977 original was a massive event when it came out, but she called it "a little superficial" when looking back today on how the story was told back then. When it was her turn to take a stab at it, with the 2016 reboot, the goal was to "do the reading and have historians involved to really paint it with as realistic a brush as possible, even though it might have been ugly."

"I feel through all of it there is a level of truth and a level of honesty that comes out and that is really important to me because, in order for these films to stand the test of time, they have to ring true to the time and the man," Carter continued. "There is nothing worse than looking back at some old film and it's just totally off base."

It is probably because of this keen attention to detail that Carter became the first Black person nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, the first for Malcolm X and the second for Steven Spielberg's 1997 film Amistad. Though she has yet to win, her mark on that world — breaking down barriers for people of color — has been made and a path has been paved out for future generations to follow.

Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter
Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter

"It's kind of bittersweet. You feel really proud that you blazed that trail but, at the same time, it's not something that's really announced to the world — or it wasn't until maybe now," Carter said about the feat. "I was the first in 1993 … so it's been a long time. It's something I'm very proud to have been able to accomplish because there weren't a lot of mentors for me as I embarked in Hollywood, which is the only job I've ever had. I didn't assist anyone. Art led me here, the desire to produce art and tell stories led me here, and my theater training of breaking down the script to find the character led me here. I've blazed a trail for other people to come behind me but, at the same time, it speaks to how slowly we change."

The lack of mentorship Carter speaks of — specifically a lack of designers of color — was never a problem for her, though. Carter explains that she chose her mentors "not because of the color of their skin but because of the work that they were producing." In turn, having made it successfully, Carter is now a mentor for up-and-coming costume designers.

"I have a lot of interns that have come up and are designers today. I have a lot of people I have trained and I'm proud of them," Carter said. "I always say there is enough room for all of us. We can be allies. I think we're stronger as allies than we are as competitors."

Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter
Courtesy: Ruth E. Carter

Given the fact that the vast majority of these historical figures Carter has designed for — at least those getting top billing — are men. It's only befitting then that Carter has some ideas on which historical figures, specifically women, she would like to design for going forward in her career.

"I'd like to see a really good Harriet Tubman [movie]. Shirley Chisholm, who stood up at a time where it was not a place for Black women. And the fact that I have been able to explore a little bit of Coretta Scott King, it sparks my interest and I feel like there is a story people don't know immediately of that I would like to be enlightened about and do that story," Carter said, outlining three influential women of color. "There are a lot of women that went unnoticed throughout our history that contributed to where women's rights are today. That story is yet to be told."

Marshall is now in theaters nationwide.

The ways we watch TV and movies have evolved, and it's time for the talent in front of and behind the camera to do the same. Film Forward speaks on the initiatives to diversify the film industry and the stories it tells. New articles premiere every second Thursday of — and throughout — the month.

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