ABFF 2016 Exclusive: Famed Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Talks Longevity

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ABFF 2016: Famed Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Talks Longevity
Posted by Wilson Morales

June 30, 2016

Ruth E Carter

For nearly 30 years, famed costume designer Ruth E. Carter has dressed so many films and received accolades from her peers that to this day, she hasn’t lost a beat.

Having done 12 of Spike Lee’s films including School Daze, Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and most recently Chi-Raq, Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, John Singleton’s Baby Boy and Four Brothers, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball, Lee Daniels’ Butler and Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Carter has worked with almost every Black director in the business.

Among the awards and accolades she received were two Academy Award nominations for Best Costume Design – Malcolm X (1992) and Amistad (1997).

ABFF 20th Anniversary 2016

Her talents isn’t just limited to films as she’s currently the costume designer for BET’s Being Mary Jane and recently worked with producer Will Packer on History’s reboot of Roots.

At this year’s American Black Film Festival (ABFF), Carter had a panel discussion on the process for planning wardrobe for a film. She was the recipient of the Female Career Achievement Award in 2002.

Shortly afterwards, Blackfilm.com spoke with Carter on coming back to ABFF and giving advice to others who want to follow her footsteps.

With so many projects that you are working on, it’s great that you had the time to come to festival’s 20th Anniversary. 

Ruth Carter: I feel like I have more to offer after those years to the people that are coming, the film makers and the film enthusiasts that are coming to the ABFF this year.

ABFF 2016 Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter

You’ve been doing this business for a long time. What is the theme to keep getting work? Are you going after the work or do they come after you based on what you’ve done in the past?

Ruth Carter: It’s a little bit of both. If you want to shape your life and shape your career, you have to go after the things that you want to do and shape the person who you want to be, so I just don’t wait for people to call me, otherwise I’ll be doing Do the Right Thing over and over again. I’ll be doing Amistad over and over and over again.

There is some of that that I do stay in, kind of like the period genre, which I love. There’s also other branches that you should explore if you want to stay alive in this business. You need to do contemporary, you need to do not only black films, you need to do white films, you need to do European films. You need to do independent every once in a while. Keep your tool sharpened so that you are sought after at some point in your life. You don’t want to be struggling forever to get work, even though we all feel that after your job is done, you’ll probably never work again because we’re artists and we’re critical of ourselves.

For the most part, I have an agent and the agent makes calls. Their job is while you’re working, they’re fielding what’s happening in the industry so if they get a call for a production designer on something great that they know is an area you want to get into, they pitch you for it.

Ruth E. Carter Roots costume design

How hard or easy is it if it’s a time period that you may have tackled before?

Ruth Carter: It’s never easy. I don’t take a job that I don’t feel inspired by, so if it’s something that I have done before … I don’t think any film that I’ve done, no 2 are alike. I don’t care if Amistad is very different from Roots, even though they both deal with slavery. I wouldn’t take it if I felt like I was going to be doing the same thing over and over again. I have to be inspired. I have to like the subject. I have to read the script and be moved by it in order for me to tackle it artistically.

Is there any particular project throughout the work that you’ve done that you’re most fond of, like, “This looks really good?” Whether or not a lot of people saw it or not, you just know, “I did a good job based on these costumes.”

Ruth Carter: That’s a good question. I loved Sparkle. Sparkle was so much fun. I loved all the actors. I loved how they wore my clothes. Nobody really saw it, I guess. Some people saw it. When people say, “I loved Sparkle,” I’m so happy because it was tough, but I built a lot and I designed a lot. My heart was in that film.

Ruth E. Carter 2

You mentioned earlier one needs to have agent to find out what’s going on. When people look at your background and you’re their role model to many, what does it take for them to be in the trenches, to get the work, to be recognized?

Ruth Carter: They’ve got to come to the ABFF. They have to network. It’s not the only way that I get work. I network. I talk to people. I go to see films and I give out compliments on the films that I’m not associated with. I saw Straight Outta Compton and when I saw F. Gary, I told him he nailed it. I was very much involved with being a part of this industry.

We all work a lot, and then when you’re not working you want to go to bed, so it’s hard. It’s hard for everyone, but it’s necessary. It’s necessary that you have a friend. I have a friend who’s a publicist. I talk to her. We talk, we rap about what’s going on, who’s doing what. She’s the publicist for Birth of a Nation. It’s not necessarily things that I’m directly associated with that I’m interested in, because I love this medium and I want to see what other people are doing.

Is it ever daunting when you’re doing these period pieces like, “Oh.” You look at the cast like, “Okay, I’ve got to dress them up differently.”

Ruth E. Carter on set

Ruth Carter: Oh, yeah. I take each person as a personal connection to the story. Each person is a personal connection to the story, so each person tells their own story within their costume.

It’s daunting, but when you get bigger projects like that you have to have a different type of support system. Smaller jobs I drive myself to set. I might have something in my car that’s needed for that week. There’s things that I would do on a smaller project that I cannot do on a bigger project. On a bigger project, I can’t drive myself to set every morning at 4 am. I have too much to think about. I got too much to focus on. There’s too many emails. It’s just too much, so I have a support staff that helps me get through those daunting projects so that I can stay focused on the thing that that I do and the thing that I love, which is costume design.

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