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Raising Our Voices: How Mentorship Opened Doors for Crafts Leaders on ‘Respect’

Sarah Carter, Clint Ramos and Stevie Martin traveled unique paths to get to the Queen of Soul's biopic, with a hand from veteran colleagues: "Maybe now somebody from a marginalized background can see a future for themselves in the field."

The road to Respect began with the Queen of Soul herself, who was involved in discussions about her biopic several years before her passing in 2018. Ultimately, it took a village to bring the life story of Aretha Franklin to the big screen for the first time.

With the legendary singer already having anointed Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson to play her, in 2019 MGM tapped South Africa-born theater director Liesl Tommy — a 2016 Tony nominee for Danai Gurira’s Lupita Nyong’o-starring play Eclipsed — to helm. The film’s screenwriter, Tracey Scott Wilson, is also an acclaimed theater vet (The Story, The Good Negro), whose screen credits include FX’s The Americans and Fosse/Verdon.

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Tommy and Wilson set out to tell a story that focused on Franklin’s coming of age as a musical prodigy and as a young Black woman finding her voice amid industry execs and civil rights titans. Spanning three decades (the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s), Respect also seeks to contextualize the diva’s impact on musical and social culture.

“Her music and her activism were deep. She was so sophisticated that when the country moved from a civil rights activism to a Black Power activism, she was right there,” Tommy told THR in a joint interview with Wilson in December. “That I find very moving, very powerful, very inspiring, as an artist who believes in the marriage of art and politics.”

Respect is the feature debut for both Tommy and Wilson, who are longtime friends and creative partners. The film also represents a major career breakthrough for three of its chief crewmembers — set decorator Sarah Carter, makeup department head Stevie Martin and costume designer Clint Ramos — each of whom was brought onto the project by a more seasoned colleague. Veteran production designer Ina Mayhew called Carter, Emmy-winning hairstylist Lawrence Davis advocated for Martin’s inclusion, and Tommy herself hired Ramos, who won a Tony for his work on Eclipsed.

It’s perhaps not incidental that all of these artisans — the up-and-comers and the ones who opened doors for them — hail from historically excluded backgrounds (as does Respect composer Kris Bowers, already featured in THR’s Raising Our Voices this season for his work on King Richard). “We take for granted now Black and white musicians collaborating, but at the time she was doing it, it was still quite new,” says Wilson of Franklin, whose famed recording sessions with a white band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is depicted in Respect.

That multiracial effort was reflected in the composition of the people behind the scenes of the biopic, and is a theme in the film. Says Tommy, “I always thought that this movie was not just about Aretha Franklin; it was also about America.”

The Hollywood Reporter’s Raising Our Voices series, presented by Walmart, focuses on emerging artisans from backgrounds that have been historically underrepresented in Hollywood. The featured craftspeople have been selected by THR editors from critically acclaimed films of the awards season.

SARAH CARTER

Set Decorator

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Sarah Carter Courtesy of Subject

As a young woman, Carter thought she’d be spending her career in courtrooms instead of film sets. The Ohio native had studied criminal justice at Georgia State and took a job as a probation officer with the intent of eventually applying to law school. “I was interested in disparities in the criminal justice system and policy study,” says Carter, 42. But after a few years, she grew disillusioned. “I expected [to be] making more of a difference, and I kind of felt like I was part of the system instead.”

To cope with her increasingly depressing job, she found comfort in the home-decorating shows that populated the airwaves in the mid-2000s, and developed a new ambition. Initially hesitant about starting over, “I got to the point where I was like, ‘I’m going to have to work the rest of my life, and as long as I’m willing to put in the work and the time and the effort, anything seems possible,’ ” she says.

So Carter went back to Georgia State, studying for a BFA in interior design while working at a fabric store in Atlanta. One day, a customer entered who was renovating the offices at Tyler Perry Studios. “Do you need an intern?” Carter asked her — and she did.

“That was the first time I became aware of the film industry,” says Carter, and after she graduated, she got a call to work as a set decoration production assistant on two Perry movies. The second project, Why Did I Get Married Too?, took her to the Bahamas, and “automatically I was hooked,” she says with a laugh.

“The hours were long and the work was stressful, but being able to be creative and collaborate was such a good thing,” she says, noting that junior associates in the interior design world would more likely be confined to cubicles all day drafting on design software like AutoCAD. “With the film industry, everybody was on the ground running, trying to make things happen. You were part of a bigger team.”

With production booming in Georgia thanks to film tax incentives, the Atlanta-based Carter was able to find enough work to move up to buyer and eventually to set decorator. Perry’s go-to production designer, Mayhew, with whom Carter worked on her first two Hollywood projects, was the one who called her for Respect. “It really felt like the opportunity I had been waiting for, to be working on a production of this size and scope,” Carter says.

A history buff, she dove into every book she could find about Franklin and her civil rights activist father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin (played by Forest Whitaker). In addition to procuring period pieces from three decades, Carter found a unique challenge in locating era-authentic musical gear. “Some of the music equipment we couldn’t source, so we manufactured some pieces,” she says. “That was the first time I got into having to do drawings and having sheet metal cut.”

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Hudson as Franklin in a recording-session scene set in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, from Respect. Courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Carter believes that if not for Atlanta being such a production hub, her career might look completely different, as it meant being on crews that were generally more diverse than the typical Hollywood production. “I was really lucky to have people who made me feel comfortable talking to them,” says Carter, noting that white allies like set decorators Lance Totten and Maggie Martin, and role models of color like Mayhew, have been instrumental to her career. “I was in such awe of [Mayhew], being a Black woman running multiple departments and having so much responsibility, yet being very supportive in talking to me.”

Mayhew told Carter that not every Hollywood experience would resemble Tyler Perry’s world. “It’s not always going to be like this: People will doubt you, but once you put your hard work out there, it will speak for itself,” she told the younger woman.

“She couldn’t have been more right,” Carter says now, noting that although she has felt like “the token” on some previous projects, the industry’s investment in more diverse stories has had a gradual trickle-down effect on crews. But more is needed, and Carter points to internship programs in her Atlanta hometown as instrumental in attracting young talent to the industry. “Otherwise, how do you even get film on your radar? When I was growing up, nobody I knew was working in the film industry,” she notes. “To really create sustainable [progress], it’s important to attract a more diverse group of people.”

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CLINT RAMOS

Costume Designer 

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Clint Ramos Courtesy of Marc Franklin

The costume designer’s first encounter with his future profession was through political street theater in the Philippine capital, Manila, where the Cebu-born Ramos was attending boarding school. He was only 10 years old, and a drama teacher had invited him to participate. “I fell in love with this idea of being able to do something collaboratively and working toward this giant thing that moved people, particularly during the [Ferdinand] Marcos regime,” he says of the years before the dictator was deposed in the 1980s. “I was very young, and I saw the power of performance.”

Ramos, 48, would go on to major in theater arts (with a minor in sociology) at the University of the Philippines, then immigrated to the United States when he earned a scholarship to NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where he achieved his MFA in the Design for Stage and Film department. While there, he met playwright and director George C. Wolfe (who most recently helmed Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), at the time the artistic director of The Public Theater. “He was particularly a champion for artists of color, and he saw my work and said, ‘Hey, if you’re interested, we have a couple of plays that need designers,’ ” Ramos recalls.

“It opened a door for me to walk through. That was the first time I encountered Shakespeare. I think normally I wouldn’t be invited to do a Shakespeare play,” he continues. “When I was going to school, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like me. Particularly with my immigrant background, I always felt a lot of people had a leg up on me. I don’t think people looked at me and said, ‘Let’s hire Clint for this show,’ but George was able to see past that.”

That vision has led to a lengthy and prolific career for the stage, where Ramos has served as costume and/or scenic designer for more than 200 theater, opera and dance productions, including more than a dozen on Broadway. He has received five Tony nominations, including a win for best costume design in a play for Eclipsed, making him the first-ever nonwhite winner in that category.

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“There’s a Filipino saying: ‘Trust somebody, and they become trustworthy.’ It basically means: ‘Hire somebody, and then they become hirable.'” Courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

“I always point that out because it says something about where we are,” Ramos says. “In film and theater, we pride ourselves for being so inclusive and liberal, yet look at who gets invited to participate. Being first is a double-edged sword: It means it took this long, and also it means that maybe now somebody who comes from a marginalized background can see a future for themselves in the field.” The latter is meaningful to the designer, who upon his arrival in New York used to scan Playbill for people of color on creative teams, searching for hope and possibility.

Although his only previous screen project was Isabel Sandoval’s 2019 indie Lingua Franca, about an undocumented Filipina trans woman, Ramos was asked by Tommy to design the costumes for Respect, a monumental task — 82 planned looks for Aretha Franklin (about 56 or 57 of which made the final cut), 85 percent of it bespoke, plus crowd scenes at concerts and churches that sometimes meant dressing as many as 1,200 people a day.

Ramos sought near-accuracy with some costumes, such as those worn by Franklin and the congregants at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church the day she recorded her legendary live album Amazing Grace in 1972. “Because the documentary had just come out, I wanted to replicate it verbatim almost,” he says, noting that the only adjustments he made were for the differences in Franklin’s and Hudson’s height and skin tone.

At other times, Ramos took artistic license to “give an evocation of [the historical outfit] but make sure that it looks appropriate on Jennifer and for the scene.” Case in point: the gown Franklin wears when Martin Luther King Jr. introduces her for Aretha Franklin Day in her Detroit hometown. “That dress was acid green and it’s got all these feathers. It would have been fierce then, but if we weren’t careful, it was sort of Dr. Seuss-y and cartoonish,” Ramos recalls. “That was a moment where she was being crowned, and I wanted to take it a little bit more seriously.” (Ramos is pictured adjusting his homage to the famous gown at the top of this page.)

Ramos’ field is not as traditionally dominated by white men as other departments, but he points out it faces specific equity issues as a result. “The biggest challenge for the costume design field is that it has been traditionally populated by women and queer people, [and] it has always suffered from parity,” he notes. “The working conditions versus the pay has not always been on par with other department heads, and that’s a shame.”

A dedicated advocate of expanding opportunity and equity for BIPOC and immigrant artists, Ramos — whose dream project is to design a live or feature adaptation of The King and I (“Every single time, it’s been seen through the lens of a white person, and I would love nothing more than a chance to look at it through a Southeast Asian gaze”) — says the solution is simple yet profound: “There’s this Filipino saying that translates into something like: ‘Trust somebody, and they become trustworthy,’ ” he says. “It basically means: ‘Hire somebody, and then they become hirable.’ “

OTHER CREDITS Sunday in the Park With George and The Elephant Man on Broadway

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STEVIE MARTIN

Makeup Department Head 

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“There will be opposition and you have to prove you’re just as qualified.” Courtesy of Subject

Although Martin had been working in Hollywood for nearly a decade, Respect’s producers initially weren’t sure about hiring her. After an interview, thanks to a referral from veteran hairstylist Davis (Mare of Easttown, The Underground Railroad), who had already been hired as hair department head, she had yet to hear back. “I have a well-rounded résumé, but with this being Aretha Franklin, an icon, I believe they wanted somebody who had a bit more [notability] than myself,” she says.

But Davis insisted that he wanted Martin, with whom he’d previously worked on several projects, and eventually she got the call to come on board. “I knew they had interviewed other people and there were other choices, so now the pressure was on me to make sure that I did a really good job,” she says.

Martin began building her “well-rounded résumé” at the age of 14, when the Miami native, now 41, started working in a salon as a shampoo girl. After receiving her cosmetology license, she did hair at the salon for a decade before adding part-time and freelance gigs at MAC Cosmetics and CNN to her schedule. “Stevie, you can’t have three jobs,” her mother chided her, so she chose CNN, which allowed her to do both hair and makeup.

CNN’s Atlanta headquarters gave Martin experience working with a variety of hair textures and skin tones under the pressure of live television and breaking news, but after eight years she began looking for ways to move into film and TV. Through persistent networking, she broke through, as a key makeup artist on acclaimed SundanceTV series Rectify.

“I started as a key, and I didn’t even know what that meant. I didn’t know how to read a call sheet,” she says. “I started asking people on set, and every day I had a checklist to learn what I needed. I would go home and google: ‘What does it mean when they say 10-1?’ ” (It’s production lingo for a short bathroom break.)

Martin didn’t want to disappoint those who had referred her, because “when somebody refers you, they put their weight behind you.” Her self-imposed pressure was so great that she turned down her first offer to be a department head, on the 2015 indie Lila & Eve, starring Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez, because she didn’t feel ready. But the film’s producer-director, Charles Stone III, believed in her and convinced her to make the leap. “From that, it’s just been referral after referral,” she says.

Nearly a decade after her first Hollywood job, Martin’s attitude and work ethic has remained the same. For Respect, she pored over vintage issues of Jet and Ebony and researched beauty trends, particularly of the 1950s, a period for which not a lot of reference photographs exist of a pre-fame Franklin, who was back then simply a gifted Detroit church girl. But Martin’s biggest challenge as makeup department head came from staffing enough artists for the big crowd scenes. “I didn’t want to just get anybody, so in numbers terms it looked as though I was understaffed,” she says of her team, which consisted of three in the trailer and about 15 additional artists. “So I would set up a station and help get the background [actors] ready with them.” Making up extras is an atypical move for a department head, but Martin saw Jane Galli on The Nice Guys doing that, “and I was like, that is something I will take with me when I become a department head.”

Another priority of Martin’s is to train artists, knowing that women of color often lack the opportunities to gain valuable credits and working experience in Hollywood. “One thing I always do when I hire my team is teach them to have a certain quality, initiative, integrity and temperament wherever they go,” she says. “When you are in leadership as a Black woman, there will be opposition, and you have to prove you’re just as qualified as anybody else.”

In recent years, the industry has finally begun listening to Black actresses talk about the need to have stylists experienced in working with their hair texture and skin tones. Martin says, “I’ve been on projects where the talent walks in and are so happy to see somebody who looks like them, and then they put [their own] makeup bag away.”

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This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.