‘Malcolm X’ Costume Designer Recalls Start

Black Academy Awards Series: Ruth Carter cut her teeth on School Daze and just wrapped an Oprah film.

Ruth Carter and Oprah Winfrey on the set of The Butler (Instagram)
Ruth Carter and Oprah Winfrey on the set of The Butler (Instagram)

As we gear up for the 2013 Academy Awards, airing Feb. 24, The Root is speaking with black Oscar winners and nominees — past and present — about the prestigious honor.

(The Root) — You may not immediately recognize Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth Carter‘s face or name, but chances are you definitely remember her work.

She outfitted Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett as Ike and Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and bedazzled Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston in 2012’s Sparkle. The research and diligence she applies to her craft earned her two Academy Award nominations for Malcolm X and Amistad, in 1993 and 1998 respectively, making her the first African American to be nominated for best costume design. Sharen Davis (The Help, Django Unchained) is the only other African American to be nominated in that category.

Most recently, Oprah Winfrey tweeted photos of herself in full wardrobe with Carter on the set of The Butler, a Lee Daniels-directed historical drama, introducing the costume designer to her nearly 17 million tweeple. Soon after, Carter worked on Spike Lee’s forthcoming flick Oldboy, starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Brolin.

Everything is working wonderfully for Carter, but she almost chose another path. Born into a family of educators, the Springfield, Mass., native also wanted to become a teacher before nixing those plans in favor of costume design while at Hampton University. She worked at the world-renowned Santa Fe Opera and the Los Angeles Theatre Center before her pal Lee, then a newbie filmmaker, encouraged her to work in films.

The Root caught up with Carter, who was in Atlanta working on BET’s Being Mary Jane, to chat about being the first African-American Oscar nominee for costume design, whom she’d like to work with next and details on how Spike Lee helped her get started in film.

The Root: Knowing that throughout history there were several talented African-American tailors and seamstresses, it seems almost unbelievable that in 1993 you became the first to be nominated for a costume design Oscar. There were no others before you?

Ruth Carter: No, I’m telling you; no, there were none. They were doing supervising — we were not allowed in this industry in department-head positions. We could shine your shoes, but we weren’t going to design your shoes. There’s a big difference. And please note, I don’t feel like I have personally been separated as a black designer, even though the black filmmakers have embraced me and I have enjoyed doing any and all of the stories that I have been blessed to have done, and I feel like I am a player.

Yes, I don’t get to do Gwyneth Paltrow — when they’re thinking of who could be the best designer for her, I’m not necessarily their first choice. But there are so many layers to what makes filmmakers pick who they want. There’s nepotism, yeah, there’s racism and separatism — there’s all kind of isms. Once you pass the racism, then you’re going to have to deal with gender issues, or the fact that you’re not foreign or European. You know, there are so many layers; it’s just not black and white.

TR: It seems that you got your start working with black filmmakers?