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“I could tell it was going to be something special for a lot of people,” the respected costume designer Ruth E. Carter tells me as we sit down at The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast and begin discussing Ryan Coogler‘s Black Panther, for which she received the third best costume design Oscar nomination of her career, tying Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for most overall Oscar noms for a black woman ever. “And when it did come out and everyone started dressing in their regalia [at screenings and on Halloween], I felt like people were really wanting to see something like this, that they really wanted to celebrate culture and they wanted to see themselves.” Adds the 58-year-old, who is best known for her 14 collaborations with Spike Lee over the last three decades, and who will receive the Career Achievement Award at the Costume Designers Guild Awards on Tuesday night, “It just hasn’t stopped. And I’m just so proud of it.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below [starting at 23:40], following a conversation with Melissa Berton and Rayka Zehtabchi about their Oscar-nominated documentary short Period. End of Sentence., a film they made about young women in India whose lives were changed by young women in LA.
Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.
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Carter was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of eight children raised by a single mom. By fate, her childhood bedroom housed an old sewing machine, on which she began experimenting around age 10, and, she explains, “As we moved from house to house, it moved with us.” Eventually, Carter went off to Virginia’s Hampton University, planning to pursue a career as a special education teacher for deaf children. She ventured into the theater program looking for techniques she could use to work with them, and wound up being drawn to acting — and being invited to work in the theater’s costume shop, where she found her calling. After graduating, Carter had unpaid internships at a theater in Springfield and an opera in Santa Fe, New Mexico, before moving, in 1986, to Los Angeles. She landed a job at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, as well as a side gig at a dance studio in South Central, which is where her friend Robi Reed, a casting director, brought her friend, Spike Lee, one night in 1986, shortly before Lee’s feature directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.
Reed introduced Carter and Lee, and, over the ensuing months, Lee courted Carter to design his sophomore film, which would become 1987’s School Daze. “My mindset was on theater and opera and the arts and that vein, so a [film] wasn’t necessarily something that I had in my sights,” Carter insists — plus, there weren’t many black people working as costume designers for films at that time. (“Maybe one,” Carter says.) But the success of She’s Gotta Have It convinced Carter to take a leap of faith, and she became bicoastal in order to work with Lee at his production company in Brooklyn. Her strong work on his early films — including 1989’s Do the Right Thing, for which, she says, “We created, I feel, what the world could see as pop culture for New York, and it grew into the mainstream” — got her noticed by other up-and-coming indie filmmakers, many also black.
“In between Spike Lee joints, I would work with Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans,” Carter says. “We were entering a new paradigm shift. The films that were out [and] the television shows that were out were still not reflective, representative of what was really going on in the black community. I think once those stories started to be produced by the people who knew them — that is, African-Americans — then the door opened for behind-the-scenes people to have those roles behind the camera.” Lee, more than anyone, was at the vanguard of this change. “He wanted to bring more people of color into the industry,” Carter explains. “It made for us doing things in our own way and figuring things out on our own that weren’t necessarily ‘the tried and true way’ that Hollywood did things, but it did carve a new path and a new way of presenting our stories.” As for why she stuck around for a total of 14 films — and counting? “Spike believes in you. Spike doesn’t care what anybody else thinks,” she says.
Over the years, Carter took on increasingly challenging projects. The hardest of all, she submits, was Lee’s Malcolm X, for which she had to costume people in period-appropriate clothes spanning the eras of the 1920s through the 1960s — but she succeeded to the extent that she received her historic first Oscar nomination. Carter also worked for a wide variety of other content creators, as well, from Jerry Seinfeld on the 1989 pilot of Seinfeld to Steven Spielberg on 1997’s Amistad (which brought her Oscar nom No. 2), and on to two 21st century portraits of historically significant African-Americans, Lee Daniels‘ The Butler (which spans eight decades) and Ava DuVernay‘s Selma, released in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
One sort of film Carter had never costumed was a superhero movie. “It was a surprise,” therefore, when Coogler and “very secretive” Marvel asked her to meet about Black Panther, and when she landed the job. “I wanted to respect the comic book legend and the Marvel fans and what they expected to see and what Marvel wanted,” she emphasizes, “but I really needed to bring in the detail.” Working from a color palette suggested by Coogler (he wanted his principal characters to wear black, red and green, the colors of the Black Liberation Flag), Carter went to work, reimagining the Black Panther suit (adding Africa-shaped texture to its surface), crafting elaborate headdresses for the female characters (which were then made with 3D printers) and altogether devoting herself, body and soul, to the groundbreaking enterprise. The experience of working on the film and her resulting third Oscar nom — which she calls “a great, great honor,” and which could result in her becoming the first-ever black winner of the best costume design Oscar — have left her feeling immense gratitude. “I couldn’t have asked for more when I started out on this whole idea of being a costume designer,” Carter says. “I had no idea it would lead here.”