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Many of the most distinguished members of Hollywood’s black community gathered Thursday night at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills for an elegant and heartfelt celebration of three of their own: costume designer Ruth E. Carter, actor Samuel L. Jackson and director Spike Lee.
Falling in the middle of Black History Month and just four days before an Oscars ceremony that will boast more diverse nominees (films and people) than ever before, the seventh annual pre-Oscar dinner of ICON MANN — a lifestyle media platform dedicated to honoring the achievements of influencers of color — drew an all-star crowd, to the delight of its founder and hostess extraordinaire Tamara Houston.
In addition to the trio of honorees, the room included actors Angela Bassett, Don Cheadle, David Oyelowo, Giancarlo Esposito, James Pickens Jr., Stephan James, Trevante Rhodes and Wren Brown; directors John Singleton and Roger Ross Williams; producer Charles King; former film Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and TV Academy chair Hayma Washington; Marvel chief Kevin Feige.
Carter, Jackson and Lee, it was pointed out, are each the product of a historic black college — Carter went to Virginia’s Hampton University, while Jackson and Lee both attended Morehouse College, the current president of which thanked them, via video, for “carrying the torch of excellence” — and the three have also worked together on numerous occasions, dating back to Lee’s 1988 film School Daze, in which Jackson starred, and which Carter costumed.
Jackson was toasted by Pickens and then introduced by Marvel’s Feige as “a true icon,” with Feige noting that “it’s an honor of some kind” to be called “motherfucker” by the Pulp Fiction star. More seriously, he continued, “Without Sam Jackson — this is no exaggeration — the Marvel Universe [comprising 23 films] doesn’t exist.”
Jackson accepted the award by saying, “I’m here because I had a wonderful role in a Spike Lee film, [1991’s] Jungle Fever, and it opened the door,” revealing, “When Spike called, I was in rehab getting over what Gator [Jackson’s crack-addicted Jungle Fever character] had,” at which point Lee interjected from the audience, “I didn’t know that then!” Jackson closed by reflecting on his upbringing in segregated Tennessee: “The women in my family constantly reminded that I represented them, and not only that I represented them, but that I represented my race.”
Lee, who is Oscar-nominated for producing, directing and writing BlacKkKlansman, was celebrated by Esposito, an early muse of Lee’s who appeared in School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues, as “Wonder Man.” The actor, who is of African and Italian descent (and whose doorman, it was revealed, was once Jackson), said he occasionally clashed with Lee, but that Lee “taught me that I could be completely who I am in my own skin… and to understand who I am as an African human being in this place we call America,” adding, “I feel honored to be here and to be a part of this family.”
Boone Isaacs, in introducing Lee, thanked him for telling “stories that are so representative of the life we lead,” and recalled the honor and tear-inducing joy of placing a late-night call in 2015 informing Lee that the Academy’s board of governors had voted to award him an honorary Oscar. Lee, upon arriving at the microphone, asked Boone Isaacs to stay by his side, and told the audience that Isaacs and #OscarsSoWhite founder April Reign “are the reason why we got nominations…they are responsible for all these black folks getting nominations.”
Lee went on to speak about the importance of black people not only making films, but also working in studios’ executive suites. “Gatekeepers decide what films they’re making and what films they’re not making,” he said, “and if we’re not in the room we don’t got a voice. If we’re not in the room it can be a drought, a feast to famine. We want this to be a continuation where we get our work out, we show it to the world and we demonstrate that black folks are not one monolithic group. We look different, think different, talk different, dress different.”
Finally, Carter received a tribute from Oyelowo, who played Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s Selma, noting that Carter made him look like the Civil Rights hero by making him shirts with tight collars that helped to make it appear that he, like Dr. King, had jowls. He added, in reference to Carter’s most recent work, “It is so beautiful for me to be able to go to a movie theater with my three sons to see Black Panther and have them go through the same experience that I did at 14, 16 and 36″ — namely, seeing a movie beautifully costumed by Carter.
Bassett, who has starred in five films costumed by Carter, spanning 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It? through Black Panther 25 years later, said that she witnessed, in those two films, that Carter’s work grow from “a single room to a whole soundstage [that] was a maze and amazing,” adding “Ruthie’s costumes made Wakanda” and “To know Ruth is to love her; to work with her is to respect her.”
Carter, whose work on 1992’s Malcolm X (one of 14 films she has made with Lee) resulted in her becoming the first black person ever nominated for the best costume design Oscar, and who would be the first black person ever to win that award if she prevails Sunday, took the stage and cracked — in response to a Bassett story that Carter had taped her butt and boobs higher to please Brian Gibson, the director of What’s Love Got to Do With It? — “I’ve been doing this since before they invented Spanx!”
Carter then continued on a more serious and poignant note. “Spike, from Radio Raheem to Malcolm X, we were making art by any means necessary,” she said. As for her most recent project, Black Panther? It was “an incredible honor” to be hired to work on the revolutionary superhero film, she acknowledged, adding: “The truth is I’ve been designing superheroes my entire career. I mean, I was just handed this award by Tina Turner and Dr. King!” She closed by asserting, “Pieces of me, from my heart, are threaded in each costume.”
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Sterling K. Brown