*This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of ESSENCE Magazine.
It’s nearly impossible to settle on an entry point when preparing to speak with costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
Is it when she nabbed her first Academy Award this past February for Black Panther? Or after she earned nominations for Malcolm X in 1993 and Amistad in 1998? Her win and nominations marked the first for a Black person in the costume design category. Or, perhaps it’s 1988, when she made her big-screen debut with School Daze alongside Spike Lee, who happened to win an Academy Award this past February, too?
“That night was like seeing God at work.”– Ruth Carter
“That night was like seeing God at work,” she remembers blissfully.
Maybe it’s when she was weaving her magic in films like Do the Right Thing, What’s Love Got to Do With It, The Five Heartbeats, Selma and B*A*P*S? Or even the intense prep work she’s putting in for the upcoming sequel to Coming to America?
At the mere mention of taking a stroll down memory lane, Carter laughs and says, “Oh, my goodness! Besides driving an ice-cream truck one summer during college, this is the only job I’ve ever had, which is incredible to me.”
Ruth Elaine’s story really begins in Springfield, Massachusetts, where she and her five brothers and two sisters were raised by their mother, Mabel Virginia, the woman to whom Carter dedicated her Oscar. “You’re the original superhero,” she said of her mom, who turns 98 this year. “
As a kid growing up in the ghetto, you have a bird’s-eye view into the lives of all kinds of people who have interesting stories. For me, working in costume design is about having many characters in mind to draw from when re-creating the experience.”
Carter’s latest work can be seen through the seventies-era Eddie -Murphy–led dramedy, Dolemite Is My Name, which streams on Netflix and hits select theaters next month.
“Costume design means working as a storyteller and an apparel artist,” she says. “You’re thinking of the story and color palettes, you’re working with the set, and you’re exploring characters—whether they’re homeless, an aunt, a grandmother, a sister or a cousin—and making their personality come out in what they’re wearing.”
When asked about the source of her staying power, Carter answers easily.
“I have a strong sense of responsibility—to myself, to my life, to others. That’s what pushes and motivates me. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to do—and I can do it.”
As for defining success, she takes a second to ponder before responding.
“Part of the artist’s mind is that you always feel like you can go back and make things better, that you don’t know where to stop,” she says. “To me, success is about how good you feel at the present moment. It’s about receiving love from the people and being open to experiencing that level of positivity.”
Spoken like a true legend.Share :