Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway.I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Fashion tells stories. One Oscar-winning artist has been designing clothes to tell Black stories for decades from our lived history to our imagined futures. She brought us the street fashion of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing-
[MUSIC - Public Enemy: Fight the Power]
Fight the power
We've got to fight the powers that be
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: -recreated civil rights history in Ava DuVernay's Selma-
Martin Luther King, Jr.: We must march. We must stand up. We must make a massive demonstration of our moral certainty.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: -and manifested the world of Wakanda in both Black Panther films.
T'Challa: I never yielded. As you can see, I am not dead.
Ruth E. Carter: My name is Ruth E. Carter, R-U-T-H E C-A-R-T-E-R. I'm a costume designer.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Make that two-time Oscar award-winning costume designer.
Melissa McCarthy: The Oscar goes to Black Panther, Ruth Carter.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: In 2019, Carter won for her designs for the Marvel movie, Black Panther. In 2023, she did it again for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, making her the first Black woman to win two Oscars in any category ever.
Ruth E. Carter: Thank you to the Academy for recognizing the superhero that is a Black woman.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, Carter is releasing a book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture. It's out on May 23rd. She stopped by The Takeaway for a chat. I just had to know what story her own clothes were telling that day.
Ruth E. Carter: My clothing story today is comfort. I'm wearing a thin black V-neck sweater, khaki pants that have stretch in them, and I'm wearing a pair of sandals that are made like pillows.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Yes to sandals that feel like pillows and stretchy fabric. This is like, "Yes." I want to talk with you about how you tell stories through costume design. Where does your process begin?
Ruth E. Carter: I like to find the person through research, whether it's looking through the history books, I'm looking at images of the past, I'm looking at underwater creatures. I'm imagining this person has a past. This person is affected by their surroundings. This person is telling their own unique story. I want to be cinematic.
I want to give them something extra special that's inherent in their world or in the words that they speak, in the style of the choices, but also of the person, whether they are Black or brown or white or culturally connected to a tribe, or finding themselves through exploration of the future. I take all of those elements and I use that as my roadmap to research, and then I find things that inspire me to start the build of their character on paper first.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Is your mind working in such a way that you are visualizing it in your mind before you're actually sketching?
Ruth E. Carter: Absolutely. The visualization process does need to be supported. When I read a script, I do read and think in full color. I'm thinking about the mood as I'm going along the story. That mood, whether it's dark or it's bright or mysterious, I'm thinking in colors and not so specifically. Then there are conversations. There is a director who actually is our creative leader. They'll bring ideas to the conversation. Whether it's photographers, images of contemporary, regardless of the time that you're creating, sometimes color palettes come in different forms, many, many forms. The more information that I have, the more I can immerse into the creation of this world and the people in it.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering about, on the one hand, the kind of research and creative work that you're doing to bring to life a historic moment like the Edmund Pettus Bridge versus something rooted in a history, but which is also fantasy story like Wakanda.
Ruth E. Carter: Well, there's also things about recreating a historical event that we don't know about. That exploration lives in both scenarios. With Selma and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I as the creator of the costumes that builds that scene, every frame has a costume in it. I immerse myself in the details. I take the research with me even to set, make sure that those that are wearing these special costumes that represent this special event understand what they're wearing, how to wear it, how it should perform for them.
I'm very active side-by-side with the AD department and the director on set saying, "Well, I dressed this person in the research and he's way in the back." You see here, he's front and center, "Can we move these people around?" That really becomes the exciting part because I've used so much of the research to create this moment or this world-building. With Wakanda, the same intent is there as we created the funeral scene and everyone was wearing white.
I had the intention that I would create so many Zulu tribes, so many Turkana, so many Ndebele, so many different tribes of Africa, to show them in these clusters, and also show a unification, all of Africa coming together to celebrate the life of their king, T'Challa. It's really exciting to, in either scenario, continue your work from thought, the idea, to the manifestation in a fitting, to the actual scene that's being shot on set. It's wonderful to carry this idea through its whole iteration.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: I went to see this extraordinary exhibit, which is Afrofuturism in costume design at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I had an opportunity to see your work on display in 3D, the layers and the dimensions and the different-- for all of what I thought I knew these looked like. I apparently had no idea what they looked like until I was standing there with them.
Ruth E. Carter: In the film, you're supposed to be engulfed in the story. You're supposed to go on this ride. Our job is not to sway from the story. We were supposed to support the actor and support the story. Sometimes the details are seen but not seen if you know what I mean. The exhibition allows us to say, "Here it is. Here's that costume you saw that made you gasp or made you laugh or made you cry. Here's what they wore."
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: For you, what is Afrofuturism?
Ruth E. Carter: It's actually imagining yourself in a world that honors you and your origin, but also is a vision of your future with technology and all of the things that make our societies advance. It's very important that Afrofuture have elements of new innovations and new technology, but also holds on to your culture and your background and your origin story and embraces it.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Quick break, and then more with the visionary designer, Ruth E. Carter, next on The Takeaway.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: You're back with The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and I'm still with Ruth E. Carter, two-time Oscar award-winning costume designer. Ms. Carter has designed for dozens of iconic films, including many directed by her long-time collaborator, Spike Lee.
Ruth E. Carter: I have such a wonderful history with Spike. From the very beginning, I think our intentions were matched. We changed the landscape of filmmaking due to so many pictures that were produced at 40 Acres and a Mule: Mo' Better Blues, Do the Right Thing, Crooklyn, Clockers, Malcolm X. The film industry did change along with it and embraced independent filmmakers to allow a young director like Ryan Coogler to be embraced and allowed for a film like Black Panther to be made. As we are now, Spike and I still seeing eye to eye, but now on a bigger spectrum of ideas and stories because, now, we've created a landscape that's much more embracing of all the stories that we weren't seeing in the beginning that we're beginning to see more now.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of your work is managing young creatives, growing and nurturing them, working and collaborating with them. Can you talk to me a bit about how you approach being now Ruth E. Carter and all that that must bring to these interactions with young creatives?
Ruth E. Carter: Yes, I was a one young creative once. I remember those times when I was creating my own unique signature, trying to reach out to costume designers that I admired and wanted to understand them better and study their work. I remember that very vividly. I've been shown letters that I wrote to professors to get recommendations for different internship programs. When I read those letters I wrote now from way back when, I go, "Wow, there was a real true desire to be an artist and to learn this craft."
I can't imagine that I was unique in that way and that there are young creatives who I have met who are doing amazing work. They're not only painting and sketching as I was. They're also creating on their little sewing machine in their bedroom as I was. Now that I've gone on this journey and have had my successes, I think I'm able to encourage them in ways that they never would have imagined because I wouldn't have imagined that an Oscar award-winning costume designer would talk to me as a young college graduate entering an internship program.
I would never have even imagined that they would have something to impart, but I would be thrilled to talk to them and to ask them questions. My advice to young creatives is don't be afraid to ask. Think of the questions that you may have, think of some of the struggles that you may be experiencing, and ask your favorite how to navigate that. It was some of the best advice that I was giving. I feel a commitment to helping them understand themselves better.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a costume you've designed that you want to wear yourself or maybe have one?
Ruth E. Carter: Ah, well, I don't wear costumes actually. [laughs] I hide on Halloween because half of my friends are like, "Go talk to Ruth. Oh, my God." I would say I would wear the Dora Milaje costume to go to Starbucks and just see the reactions.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry: Ruth E. Carter is a two-time Oscar award-winning costume designer. Her upcoming book is The Art of Ruth E. Carter. It's out on May 23rd. Ms. Carter, thank you for joining us on The Takeaway.
Ruth E. Carter: Thanks for having me.
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