Ruth E. Carter is one of the most sought after costume designers in Hollywood. A muse for Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy, living legends who have called upon Carter’s sartorial genius on multiple occasions, the spotlight shone brightly on her talent in March 2019 as the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for the record-breaking Marvel movie Black Panther.
Carter has teamed up with Murphy for the sixth time on his Netflix film Dolemite is my Name, about Rudy Ray Moore, the comedy and rap pioneer whose alter ego Dolemite became a leading Blaxploitation phenomenon in the 1970s.
In London to promote the film, Carter spoke to Joy Francis about recreating the fashion from the 70s, collaborating with Lee, Murphy and Ryan Coogler, and the emerging female film directors and scriptwriters she would love to work with.
Why did you say yes to Dolemite is my Name?
I saw it as an opportunity to show the 1970s like we haven’t experienced it before in any black film; where I could recreate the trends I remembered as a kid growing up in the 70s. It was a passion project for Eddie Murphy. I hadn’t worked with him for 10 years, so I was excited to get back with him again because the film meant so much to him.
How did you work with Eddie Murphy and the script to bring that vibrant era to life through your designs?
Eddie believes in the collaborative process. This is my sixth film with him. He knew I would do my job and he gave me the latitude to do it. We looked at what would distinguish Rudy from Dolemite, and we decided stick to two specific looks for each character. For inspiration, we looked at two of his films: Dolemite and The Human Tornado. Eddie gave me guidance and sometimes when I asked him what he thought about the clothes, he would answer: ‘Me?’
Dolemite’s clothes scream bold and see me, which is very different from Ray’s mostly laid back personality.
You had to believe that his characters would come up with the clothes they wore. We gave Eddie mature clothes as Ray Moore. I wanted to give this man who worked in a record store, a particular look as he was a man who had tried many times to be famous, so I had to put two looks out there.
Let’s talk about Black Panther. Your overdue Oscar. Being the first African American woman to win in the Best Costume Design category. Your amazing speech. What did that moment represent for you, personally and professionally?
It was a seminal moment in that I was able to have a voice, not just through my films, but to be seen by the world as a woman, an African American woman, as a person who could do a Marvel film. It was Marvel’s first Oscar as well. I was very proud to represent all of that. I had always dreamed of winning one day, but I didn’t think it would be that kind of Oscar and represent so much to the culture, and to kids who wanted to see themselves in a Marvel film. They needed a superhero.
You have worked with Spike Lee so many times, I’ve lost count. What is it about his vision and cinematic style that inspires you?
I have made 14 films with Spike, not counting the commercials and TV and print work I have done with him. You experience his whole career and his whole life. Spike’s aesthetic is unmatched, and he introduces you to the most exciting artists and people and musicians. I met Branford Marsalis in the 1980s and Mos Def. I got to really feel the heartbeat of New York, as an artist. What makes Spike so special is that he keeps himself informed and up to date with new artists that are emerging; those who speak to the culture and have a voice; those he feels he wants to side with. He is very picky. The fact that he wants me to come back, again and again, is something I’ve very proud of and I’m very honoured by because I know what his voice is like. He can be very much off the grid and he expects that you will trust him to do things that aren’t done in cinema. I go back [to work with him] because I know it will be the most unique experience.
Is there anything that you have designed that makes you feel incredibly proud, emotional or leaves you with a feeling that remains unchanged from when you first designed it?
The Zoot suits of Malcolm X. Also, the Dora Milaje [Black Panther] designs represent the whole continent of Africa in terms of influences, from East to West to the North, and in their original form.
What advice do you have for those who want to costume design for TV and/or film?
Not to think that because you are black you are going to do black projects, and that because you are black you can’t do white projects – and visa versa. It is about research. We are all creating stories that we can all relate to. Costumes have any colour. You can see the magic in everyone, so pursue it in that way.
Is there a director or screenwriter that you would love to work with, and why?
I meet them all the time. I like Dee Rees [Mudbound]. I really like her way of telling stories. She is really talented. You can never judge a book by their cover with a new director. They can take an average script and really bring it far. That is what Queen & Slim writer Melina Matsoukas has done. She took what I thought was a good script and made it really great. I hope that directors look at me and say that they want me to help them bring their vision to life.
Dolemite is my Name is available to view on Netflix.