She’s worked with some of film’s biggest talents, including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Ryan Coogler, John Singleton and Ava DuVernay.
Longtime costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s over 30 year history in film is documented in the engaging SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” open through September 12, 2021.
In 2019, Carter made history by becoming the first Black costumer designer to win an Oscar, for the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Carter had been nominated for Oscars previously for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Costumes from all three of those films are prominently featured at SCAD FASH. The show’s focus is on how Carter’s costumes tell a story of race in American cinema, from slavery to civil rights, from visions of Black strength in Black Panther to Spike Lee’s groundbreaking meditation on racism and police violence in Do the Right Thing.
“The study of history is the study of people and what they were up against,” says Carter, speaking via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles about her work and her many intersections with Atlanta, where her film career really began.
Carter’s first film job was working with Spike Lee on his 1988 comedy School Daze about the Greek system and a hierarchy of skin color, hair texture, and social class among Black HBCU students.
School Daze was filmed at the Atlanta University Center and was the first of 12 film collaborations between Carter and the Morehouse-educated director. It also marked Carter’s career-long interest in expressing the complexity of Black experience via costume.
Though she grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter often traveled to the South for summer visits with relatives in her family’s ancestral home of Newport News, Virginia.
“I have a great fascination and love for the South,” she says. “When I look at the people of the South I see my history, because I have studied so much of it.”
Carter reconnected with Atlanta on many subsequent occasions, including her work on the 2016 Gal Gadot spy comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses and the BET television series Being Mary Jane.
But Carter’s undoubtedly most profound interaction with the city was her work on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Carter and her team exhaustively researched traditional African dress from Kenya to South Africa to create the film’s visionary “Afrofuturist” mix of African past and utopian future.
The SCAD FASH show is only possible because of the archive of costumes Carter has collected over the years, costumes that used to be donated to churches or schools or sold off after a film wrapped. “It was like a sad death” says Carter of those lost costumes. So she began saving them. Like the filmmakers telling stories of America’s often overlooked history through Black eyes, Carter was insistent on preserving her own creative journey. “And I had those pieces that I felt were important to the history of the picture.”
“It was a wonderful trip through my past,” Carter says of putting the show together. “I could see where my blessings were. What I could be grateful for.”