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How Ruth E. Carter Went From Costuming Her College Plays to Dressing 'Marshall' and 'Black Panther'

"I think that role that I've played has kept the narrative of this struggle," said the two-time Oscar nominee.

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Ruth Carter working on the costumes for Alex Haley's "Roots" TV series. Photo: Courtesy

Ruth Carter working on the costumes for Alex Haley's "Roots" TV series. Photo: Courtesy

"I [have done] Malcolm X. I've done Martin Luther King, Jr., now I have Thurgood Marshall and then the Black Panther," veteran costume designer Ruth E. Carter said over the phone, referring to her defining work on Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," Ava Duvernay's "Selma" and her latest film, "Marshall," the biopic-meets-legal thriller about a career-defining case for the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. "My desire [is] to be authentic and honest, and my voice has been heard through the evolution of these films." 

And we need a storyteller like Carter, who can translate costume into activism, especially at this point in modern American history, with the fight for voting rights, racial equality and freedom of protest still at the forefront. For the past three decades, the costume designer's body of work has supported telling incredibly powerful, impactful and ultimately essential fictional and historical stories of American culture. 

Last year, she received an Emmy nomination for her costumes in the TV adaptation of Alex Haley's "Roots," and she's also worked with legendary director, writer, producer and actor Spike Lee to explore and highlight race relations through 14 films and counting. Carter is the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award in costume design — with two nominations, actually — for Lee's "Malcolm X" in 1993 and Steven Spielberg's "Amistad" in 1998. Oh, and she's the costume designer on Marvel's much-anticipated (understatement) "Black Panther," coming out in 2018, which we'll get to in a bit.

Shameless teaser: T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fights Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) as the Secret Service looks on. Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Shameless teaser: T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fights Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) as the Secret Service looks on. Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

A self-professed "self-starter," Carter kicked off her prolific career as a theater arts major at Hampton University, where, after not being cast in the school play, she took on the costume designer role, instead. "It was a Molière: 'The Would Be Gentleman.' We modernized the piece and called it 'The Middle Class Gentleman,'" she said. "That was the first thing that I ever costumed, and it stuck like glue." Since a costume design professor was not on staff, Carter spent her junior year studying the subject on her own, even taking a fashion course and eventually taking on any and all costume design opportunities at the college, including the Hampton's traveling dance troupe. By the time a new costume design professor was hired her senior year, the student already surpassed the master.

"I was so busy, I could hardly get to the class," Carter laughed. "The instructor of costume design wasn't actually designing for the plays because I was doing them all." After graduation, she took on intensive theater internships, first with the CityStage, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then the prestigious Santa Fe Opera. From there, Carter went further west to Los Angeles to pursue a costume design career for the stage, which all changed when a college friend introduced her a young Spike Lee, who urged her to gain some movie experience.

"I kept thinking, 'Why does this guy keep talking to me about film? I'm not a film designer," she laughed. "Little did I know this person, Spike Lee, was going to be my employer for the next 25 years." She took his advice and signed up for a student thesis class at University of Southern California, which doubled as her first official costume designer job — not assistant or shopper, but head costume designer — on Lee's second film, "School Daze."

"That was my first experience on a movie set," she said. "Those were some fun times. Spike would have sneaker jams and we'd all have to wear tennis shoes, and for girls, you didn't want to wear tennis shoes. Back then, you wanted to have some heels on, so it was hard to get your outfit together, but he was always doing stuff that we could enjoy as a troupe, as a team, as a family."

Since then, she's worked with Lee on 14 films, including 2015's "Chi-Raq," "Jungle Fever" and the seminal "Do The Right Thing," which was recently referenced in the award-winning "Thanksgiving" episode of "Master of None." She then moved on to work with a litany of visionary directors, including "Empire" creator Lee Daniels and John Singleton.

Carter has designed for the more historic African American films and television series than any of her Hollywood peers. Her talent to create costume and connect with casts empowers the actors to immerse themselves into their history-changing roles — and resonate the core message with the audience. 

"I look for the details and the nuances," explained Carter. "What makes the fashion a character? Is it the way that, instead of buttoning the coat, it's wrapped around the waist and then the belt keeps it tied tight? Is that what's making this person look more character than just in fashion from the period? There's a big difference when you look at fashion plates and then you look at real life photographs from any era. You see what makes that person real." 

Looking back, costume designing for Lee's "Malcolm X" was one of her most memorable experiences. "Denzel Washington is probably the most studied actor I've ever worked with," said Carter. She remembers knowing when to and when not to enter the dedicated actor's trailer for fitting concerns. "You could see the energy that had empowered him as the person he was playing that day. Some days you didn't want to go in there at all," she added.

Carter also traveled to Egypt to film the scenes of Malcolm X completing the Hajj and embracing Islam to become el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. The director trusted Carter's trained eye so much that he asked her to cast the extras for a pivotal prayer scene. "They're becoming brothers: white, black and Indian. I picked all the background for that scene," she recalled. "That part was a reward that I would never forget my entire life."

For her latest historical film, Carter had a collaborative discussion with "Marshall" lead Chadwick Boseman before transforming him into a young Thurgood Marshall through costume. Knowing that he didn't physically resemble the civil rights hero, the actor told Carter that he really wanted capture "the essence of this man and his swagger and his confidence and the importance to our history." She then brought the messaging to life through impeccable (and authentic vintage) pinstriped suits accessorized with natty pocket squares, bold wide-ties and cultivated tie-pins. Each character in the movie, from Josh Gad's Connecticut lawyer to "This Is Us"'s Sterling K. Brown as the accused Joseph Spell to Kate Hudson's vintage designer suit-outfitted Eleanor Strubing, had in their own distinctive look. "They all embodied their place in 1940s and that was important to me, even though it was broad at times," said Carter. 

Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown). Photo: Open Road Films

Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown). Photo: Open Road Films

Carter is proud to have costume designed for harrowing, inspiring and powerful scenes of protest, movement and rebellion throughout African American history — in both TV and movies. In filming these momentous occasions, clothing literally supports the immense undertaking and helps convey all the feelings of fear, risk, spirit and exhilaration to the audience. For 2014's "Selma," Carter carefully studied archival imagery from the historic civil rights marches in 1965 portrayed in the movie, including "Bloody Sunday," when Alabama state troopers brutally beat peaceful protestors marching for voting rights — including future Congressman John Lewis (played by Stephan James, below), whom the 45th POTUS would accuse of being "all talk, talk, talk — no action or results" in 2017. 

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"They're wearing layers. They're wearing suits. They're wearing trench coats because that was the armor of protest," explained Carter. "Because a lot of those put extra sweaters on or they padded themselves underneath, because they knew, on the other side of the bridge, they were going to be met with batons on their backs." Along with dressing the leaders of the movement — including David Oyelowo as King, Jr. and Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King — she also was responsible for hundreds of background players essential to the scenes.

"I make poster-size photographs of some of the most intense or meaningful pictures from the era and put them all over walls," explained Carter, about communicating the gravity of the actors' portrayals through costume. "So people who come to get dressed are beginning an experience. I sometimes point to people on these poster size photographs and I say, 'That's who you are. That's who you're playing."

"Selma" was filmed on location in Georgia and Alabama, which offered the opportunity to cast extras who are descendants of civil rights protestors who made that historical walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 — making the job even more meaningful to Carter and everyone involved. 

"You are going across [the bridge] to battle," she said. "When Ava Duvernay said, 'Action, rolling!' I saw it in [the actors'] faces. I saw it in their posture. The costumes support the integrity of the scene. When I see that scene to this day, I think about that experience I had with that group of people and really, really feel proud that I was able to bring that history to life."

It's almost symbolic that Carter's impactful accomplishments and comprehensive historical knowledge all culminated in "Black Panther." The upcoming Marvel (sure-to-be) blockbuster is the first big-budget black superhero movie, directed wunderkind Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station" and "Creed") and starring "Marshall" colleague Boseman as T'Challa, a.k.a. Black Panther. (The hero made his initial supersuit-ed debut in last year's "Captain America: Civil War," designed by Judianna Makovsky, who also did Marvel's "Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.")

"I know that so many people love this story of the Black Panther, and I had a real responsibility to the fans to really get it right," said Carter. She initially looked through the comic archives to realize that each iteration of the superhero reflected the book's era, giving the costume designer more freedom to be current, but also timeless in her vision. "In my hopes, [the costumes] will be something that would stand the test of time," she added. "That people could look back at it and love it for times to come."

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) in "Black Panther." Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) in "Black Panther." Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Because ultimately, the movie is a celebration of black pride, not just with the setting of the Afro-futurist, technologically advanced kingdom of Wakanda, which has never been conquered or colonized by the Europeans, but also with Coogler making a point to fill his movie with members of Hollywood's black community, from the screenwriters, producers and crew behind-the-scenes to the stellar talent on-screen, including Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira of "The Walking Dead," Michael B. Jordan as villain Erik Killmonger and Forest Whitaker, whom Carter dressed in "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

To outfit an entire fictional nation, Carter studied a crucial and non-historical reference tool — a "Wakandan Bible" — which helped her map out and break down the different communities within the kingdom. "I looked at Wakanda like Manhattan," she explained, detailing the young, "Afro-punk" student and intellectual-populated "NYU-area," or the "Midtown" business districts or the "Columbia"-esque medical center, which also helped her determine how to differentiate the residents via dress.

Zuri, Nakia, Ramonda and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). Photo: Marvel Studios 2018. Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Zuri, Nakia, Ramonda and Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman). Photo: Marvel Studios 2018. Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Carter then related those Wakandan communities to real-life ethnic groups in Africa. For instance, she looked to the Dogon people of Mali, known for their woodworking, astronomy and architecture skills, to dress the also intellectual and mountain-dwelling (fictional) Jabari people and their leader M'Baku (Winston Duke). "It was important to me that I make aspects of their costumes, like their wooden armor, beautifully carved, and because they live in a mountainous snowy place, they needed to have things that keep them warm," explained Carter, about the Jabari's fur-lined armor and muffs.

Wakanda's high-tech civilization and resources include the coveted indestructible metal, vibranium, which also powers Black Panther's supersuit. Carter also needed to incorporate Wakanda's technological superiority into the costumes — especially when Coogler deemed one of her earlier pitches as being "too low tech."

"[So, I took] all of this design research and combining of these elements and made it forward-thinking," she explained. "More or less, we're paying homage to the ancient people of Africa, but we're also showing that they are proud of their heritage and moving ahead by having more vibranium laced into the costume by their costume having a purpose — a real clear purpose." Badass members of T'Challa's all-female Special Forces Dora Milaje wear armor with full arm and leg coverage while on-the-job. For another set of Wakandan warriors, she referenced ancient blankets used and worn by the Lesotho people, but updated the prints with indestructible "vibranium patterns." 

Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

Photo: Matt Kennedy ©Marvel Studios 2018

"They're using [the blankets] as shields," explained Carter, about the (above) cloaks covered in both advanced and indestructible script and ethnic prints. "Things like that, that say, '[Wakandans] have figured out something special' and they're utilizing it within the costume." Suffice it to say, February 2018 cannot come fast enough.

While looking back on her cultural impact over the last 30 years, Carter will continue to dedicate herself to storytelling for years to come. "I think that role that I've played has kept the narrative of this struggle," she said.

"I think that's important for young people to know that the struggle continues. That there are people we can look back at and gain strength from — and be inspired by their journey — and look what they had to endure. We're not finished."

Follow Ruth E. Carter on Twitter @iamRuthECarter.

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