‘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)

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 RC: My first years of working, I went back and forth between Spike Lee, Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans. Those were my first directors, and when Spike would finish a movie, here comes Robert Townsend with a movie; and if Robert Townsend wasn’t doing something, Keenen Wayans was doing something. So I was doing Do the Right Thing and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and all of those movies.

And then there weren’t a lot of us. I was only one of two or three black costume designers in film. I was the first African American to be nominated for an Oscar for costume design. I’ve mentored several African Americans in costume design, no doubt about it. We just know who each other is and we just maintain, I guess, our own community of keeping ourselves abreast of each other.

TR: Please share how instrumental Spike Lee was in getting you started in film.

RC: At the time, Spike was not a famous person and had basically just finished She’s Gotta Have It. One night a bunch of us were hanging out dancing — we were young — and he was telling me how to get more film experience. He told me to go to the University of Southern California and sign up for the senior-thesis project. He said I’d get experience on how to conduct myself on a film set and what to do.

I listened and did it on the weekends, and I heard for the first time [terms used, like] “rolling,” “cut” and “action.” It was good for me because I’d considered myself a true [theater person] and had no real interest in film.

TR: Then he gave you your first shot on a film with School Daze?

RC: We exchanged contact information. And Spike was a very good letter writer; he corresponded through postcards. He was always a good promoter of his own self, and he had these postcards printed with Nola Darling, the star of She’s Gotta Have It, on it.

He would invite me to different events, and I would be so busy working and not show up. And then She’s Gotta Have It went to Cannes Film Festival, and it was a super hit. And I remember thinking, “Damn, I didn’t respond to his letters!” But he called shortly after that out of the blue and asked me to design the costumes for his next movie. I was honestly humbled.

I guess with my naïveté at the time, I didn’t understand how big that was. All I understood is that I had to do some costumes, which I had been doing since college. It was a learning curve — a lot of hurdles — but I remember feeling very comfortable with my first film being School Daze.

TR: What was the vibe like back then?