I’m a strong believer that your passion will lead you to find purpose. Passion starts from the heart, and it takes heart to continue to push through obstacles when things get harder. As a 40 year old makeup artist, I thought honestly I’d be retired from doing makeup, but God saw otherwise. I’ve learned over the years that makeup has been the vehicle that has led me to some amazing people and opportunities! I’m glad that I didn’t put down my brushes, because I was lucky to meet such a wonderful, talented, and inspirational woman who has become my sister! Where do I even begin to describe the genius and creativity of Academy Award winning costume designer Ruth Carter! Every time I have painted her face, just being in her presence inspires me. Witnessing the wonderful work she’s done from numerous Spike Lee films, Amistad, and of course her amazing work in Black Panther movies to visual art just laying around her home. Hearing Ruth’s story was so inspiring. Hearing about her upbringing, an HBCU graduate, and how she navigated through her career. More importantly, how she knew that she was destined for greatness. How she manifested that through amazing storytelling and creativity. She’s paved a way for many others to follow and has set the bar high! There are so many things to admire and I’m truly honored to share this interview!
GP: When storytelling from a costume designer perspective, how do you approach a new project?
Ruth: First, I read the script just like reading a storybook. And I'm interested in how the story takes me on a journey. And once I see the journey or see in my mind's eye the journey, I'm impressed. I want to be taken on that journey. And so I feel like I read colors. I read in composition. It affects you as a reader, you know, that's part of the beauty of storytelling. It takes you on a ride.
And so then I start looking at whatever the research for that story is. It becomes like an exercise of trying to find the story and find those colors that you felt when you read it. And then I put mood boards together. I get a team and we all read the story and I give them my take on what I feel it is. Most of the time my take is rooted in black history. I root everything in the African diaspora or Africa. So those are the projects that I get and I feel it’s part of my responsibility to find the facts. And not only look for images, because anybody can say, Oh, I like this picture and I like this dress and I like this color. But really, do you know what you're putting together? Do you really understand what they were doing then?
So you actually have to start reading. You know, you can't just be a visual storyteller without reading what people were going through during that time. Because you could tell a very inaccurate story that looks fantastic, but nobody was doing that. So it may take a while to really come up with a presentation, which is what I, you know, in the end have to do in a short period of time. I have to present my vision of this film to the director and producers, and then after that it's like we start building and gathering.
Were you technically trained as an artist or was that something that you picked up along your journey?
I have brothers that are artists. And so from a young age I was around art materials, you know. I'd sneak into my brother's room and rip a page out of his art pad and take his chalks and leads. And so I saw how he was drawing and I just mimicked him. My oldest brother was a painter and artist, a fine artist. We revered him and he WAS the artist of the family. We were like chop liver. We were nothing.
My brother who's closest in age to me, he and I would draw with pencil all the time. We loved it so much. We had characters that we shared and we drew them on everything. One was a mouse and he was like a revolutionary because he always had his Black Panther fist. We read all of those story books, you know, and Stuart Little was one of our favorites. So we made our own Stuart Little, but that exercise of drawing, painting and coloring what kids love to do continued very strong in my household. So by the time I got to college and I became a costume designer, I actually could draw some characters in the play and I would present them to our director in school and he would say, Hey, how'd you get that skill? <laugh> And I didn't think that they were great, but I could do it.
So let's dive into Hampton, your HBCU. How do you feel your experience at Hampton has shaped you into the person you are or contributed to your career?
Hampton allowed me the freedom to be me and I did not have to deal with white supremists, racists, or challenges that might have occurred at another type of university. There was a sense of family at Hampton. I actually had a real family. My uncles, my cousins, everybody was there, but the theater department was a playground for me. There was not a costume designer at that time. There was one just before I came into the department, but she had left. And so there was a play that I had auditioned to be in and I didn't make the cut. The director, who was our professor, asked me if I wanted to do the costumes. And you know, from that experience I had at home sketching, I also, you know, discovered a sewing machine in my room. So I had taught myself a little bit about sewing and, you know, I just like to say legacy led me here.
When I think of the sewing machine, in most black households there was a sewing machine and it was as commonplace as the Iron. For me as a young girl, it was a sign that if you can't buy it, you had to make it, and it was just a household thing. Fast forward to getting this opportunity to design the costumes for a play, and I think back to my family, drawing in my room and the sewing machine. It was based on legacy.
As you got into the industry, can you talk about a time where you might have felt like race and/or gender influenced you, maybe not getting a job or brought a challenge in your growth along the way?
Because I worked for so many years for Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans, they sheltered me from the storm of racism in Hollywood. After I got nominated for Malcolm X, Hollywood wanted to get me into the room to interview.
There were a couple of jobs that were produced by people who didn't see me there, but the director would be African American. And they insisted on having me. And, you know, I had to fight. I had to have tough skin. I remember walking with the actress who was white to the set and the producer, who was also white, came over to me and he said, Is that the best you can do? The actress had said to me before we even stepped one foot on set, she said, listen, if you and I like it, then it's okay. So by the time he came up with his nasty attitude, I was okay. I was cemented with the lead, and we went on to create some really fun costumes. And when the movie came out, that same producer came over to me and said, I really love the costumes.
So, you know, that taught me a huge lesson to stick by what your gut tells you and don't let people guide you in all different directions because you will lose your way.
Can you take us back to your first big break and how that even came about?
Yes. I was a theater person in Los Angeles, believe it or not, where there's not a lot of theater. I got a job at the Los Angeles Theater Center and I was active. I didn't make very much money. I had a show I was doing on the side for a dance company. It was based outta South Central La and it was to the music of Stevie Wonder, Songs to the Key of Life album. And it was magical! Because I was working for a theater company, I had access to stock. So I told them, you guys need a costume designer and I can do it. The show was huge. People were coming from all over Hollywood to this little dance studio. Including Spike Lee, who encouraged me to get film experience. And I was like, film experience? I'm a theater person, I don't do that, but I eventually did because he was persistent. He sent me postcards asking me to come see a screening of his new film, She's Gotta Have It. I finally went and I saw it and I was like, I’ve been doing Shakespeare? Yet this girl is walking through Brooklyn. I can do this. And that sparked my curiosity.
It wasn't long before he (Spike Lee) called me one morning before the sun came up. And was like, Ruth? I was like, Yes, who is this? He Said, this is the man of your dreams. I said, Denzel? <laughter>
So I did School Daze with Spike, and the rest was like 14 films later.
What mentors and/or heroes did you have along the way?
My brothers were my first mentors. I idolized them, like I said before. Then, I had an instructor in college, she mentored me. My senior year I lived in the basement of her house. She was a writer and teacher at Hampton, Linda Bolton Smith, who has since passed. She was an incredible woman. She was what I view as the woman I am today, because I can still see her. I can still feel her, and am still being mentored by her strength. She was the first person that told me I was doing the right thing. I’d never called myself an artist because I really don't know what that is, and I don't think she ever told me I was an artist. What she did do was guide me into my passion for storytelling and art.
So you became the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design, how did that make you feel personally and the impact it may have left on others in your space?
Well, I've always thought that there was a future with me and an Oscar. I've always thought about that Oscar. I wasn't trying to think about it in terms of -oh this may be my Oscar movie. Spike Lee had told me a long time ago, don't think about winning an Oscar just think about doing a good job. And that's what I did. I also was so curious that there was never anybody who had won it of color for costume design. And I was thinking, WHY? Why haven't we been contributing to the industry on a level like that? So I was determined that I wanted it, but if it happened it happened. If it didnt I wasn’t going to be unhappy because I love doing costume design. I did Malcolm X and got an Oscar nomination, but the process of making that film meant so much more than getting a nomination. At the time, those people who were voting for me were all white women. So I was like, what do they know about what I do? So I was like nominate me, thank you but imma get that trophy. Then when I realized I had done Black Panther, they couldn't stop me. I knew that (an Oscar) was in the cards for me. Once you get the nomination, it becomes a numbers game. How many people saw your film? And that's how you scoop up the votes. So if the film is a big success, you have a good chance of being in the running.
So I never take things for granted. Even at Oscars night, I was nervous. I didn't want to be disappointed. Then it was like, yeah you got it!
How different was the experience for Black Panther 2 than it was for the debut film?
This one is four times bigger and was four times harder, because we filmed in the middle of a pandemic and lost Chadwick Boseman. It brings in Mesoamerica and the Mayans, which is going to make the latin community super proud, I hope. So I'm excited to present their Wakanda.
What does grinding pretty mean to you?
It means that you are passionate and willing to do what it takes to come out on the other side shining bright like a star.
To check out the full editorial spread, grab a copy of the Grind Pretty Winter 2022 issue.
Check out Ruth’s latest work in Wakanda Forever and follow her @therealruthcarter.
Written by Mimi Johnson
Photographer: Jack Manning III, @jaxonphotogroup