Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth. E. Carter on women’s empowerment, Atlanta, and the writers’ strike

Carter spoke with us before appearing at the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Women Leadership Breakfast

Ruth E. Carter
Ruth E. Carter speaks at the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Women Leadership Breakfast on May 4.

Photograph courtesy of the United Way of Greater Atlanta

Lately, Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter spends most of her days at Tyler Perry Studios working on an undisclosed project. But last Thursday, she visited the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre for several hours, empowering women and sharing hard-earned lessons from her storied career. The famed designer, whose first big gig was working on Spike Lee’s Atlanta-based production of School Daze in the late ‘80s, has gone on to work on prominent films such as Malcolm X, Amistad, B*A*P*S, Selma, and perhaps most famously Black Panther, which made her the first Black woman to take home an Oscar for costuming. Carter’s work has been a critical element in many of the films that have centered and celebrated the Black experience for more than 30 years.

In March, Carter won her second Oscar for her work on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. She says she credits Ryan Coogler for writing the sequel—with its poignant themes of grief and leadership after the death of lead actor Chadwick Boseman—through the lens of the film’s women. His script, coupled with her costumes and the rest of the production “empowered the idea that women are resilient,” she says. “We are mothers. We are rulers, as well.”

This empowerment was also the underlying theme for her talk with WSB-TV’s Sophia Choi, Atlanta Dream co-owner and Vice President Renee Montgomery, and Fab’rik founder Dana Spinola at the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Women Leadership Breakfast.

Ahead of the panel, Carter spoke with Atlanta about her goal of empowering women, her relationship with Atlanta, and the current writers’ strike.

Why was it important for you to participate in this women’s leadership breakfast? 

Women always could use the support of other women. A lot of us who are unseen and unheard voices can be amplified when we join together. Throughout my career, I have supported many actresses. Through my journey, I’ve supported many initiatives that pertain to women and their rights, in big and small ways.

Do you remember a time where you had a woman in the industry speak up or encourage you when you really needed it?

Oh, I can think of several instances where someone has stepped up in my career and supported me. Victoria Alonso was [an executive at] Marvel. Black Panther was not proven, so when we were making it, there were naysayers [who] were a part of my team and decided to—right at a critical moment—exit and go on to another big film. I was faced with being a woman of color [and] my first time doing a Marvel film, having never done a superhero film. Victoria called me and said, This is your job, and no one is going to take it away from you. You have my support. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

You recently received the Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival Fine Art + Fashion. I know you’ve received a lot of awards, but did anything about that one, which is based here and took place at the Atlanta History Center, stand out to you?

I was just so enamored by the fact that they support programs that were very much like the ones I remembered being in [when I was in] high school. There were young high school girls there with their art, and I got to talk to all of them and hear their stories. Some of them showed me costumes that they had designed and built on on their phones. I was touched by that and I thought, if this is an organization that supports the arts like I remember being supported, I’m all in.

When you talk about the arts programs you remember from high school, were they fashion programs? 

No, a lot of people think I came into this field because I liked fashion. I do appreciate fashion, but I really came into this field because I love storytelling. The plays and playwrights that I read growing up just really painted a vivid picture of my neighborhood, past, present, and future. I just wanted to be in a field that would amplify that.

My mother would ship me away every chance she could and I would be in these programs at Amherst College [and] Smith College. They had Black music, cultural programs . . . that’s where I first learned about Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and James Baldwin. We had dance [classes] and we put on a program for our families at the end.

Obviously there’s a writers’ strike going on in Hollywood right now. Negotiations between Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) broke down, so WGA has initiated a strike. How is that impacting the work you’re currently doing?

I’m in support of pay equity and, certainly, the writers deserve to adjust their pay scale and what their jobs look like based on how we evolve in this world. Streaming has taken over. [Writers] deserve to have the residuals or the financial support that I think the producers and the studios are gaining from streaming. I was working when the [2007/2008] strike happened and it was like 100 days.

When you’re [dealing with] feature films, if your script is written, you can still go on. [Editor’s note: Since union writers are striking, they are unable to be on set to make last-minute script changes while filming. Thus, films and shows that are currently filming are doing so with original scripts.] There’s also the issue of the people I work with and for. I have 37 people in my department right now, and it’s scheduled to grow. If we don’t cross the picket line, a lot of people are unemployed. I don’t want to see that happen to them, so I’m hoping they can negotiate something quickly.