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Influencers: Ruth E. Carter Is Preserving Black History Through Fashion

Eddie Murphy on how the costume designer of "Dolemite Is My Name" is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Ruth E. Carter poses for a portrait in Los AngelesRuth E. Carter Portrait Session, Los Angeles, USA - 15 Jan 2019

Ruth E. Carter

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Backstage at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, after she received the Oscar for costume design for “Black Panther,” Ruth E. Carter talked about the significance of her win for other costume designers of color coming behind her. “Finally the door is wide open and I’ve been struggling and digging deep and mentoring and doing whatever I could to raise others up,” she said. “And I hope through my example, this means that there is hope and other people can come on in and win an Oscar just like I did.”

The costume design world has never been the most inclusive. When Carter entered the business, she had few African American role models to emulate. When asked to list black costume designers who were working when she got her start, she name-checks only the late Palmer Brown, who designed for television series like “Gimme a Break!” and “A Different World.”

Three decades and more than 50 films and TV series later – many of them culturally and historically significant — Carter now one of the most recognizable below-the-line names of color, and an inspiration for the next generation of costume and fashion designers from diverse backgrounds.

She’s invited to give lectures at universities across the country. She’s celebrated with exhibits and career retrospectives. And she has put the craft of costume design in a spotlight that it’s rarely given, effectively becoming an ambassador for the trade.

Her body of work boasts a narrative that collectively tells the story of African Americans; the movies she’s worked on span centuries. It’s a journey that can be traced from the generational narrative of “Roots,” to the 19th century slave revolt in “Amistad”; from the Civil Rights era “Malcolm X” and “Selma,” to the meditations of “The Butler”; from the cultural impact of the Motown sound in “Sparkle,” to fighting the power in 1980s Brooklyn in “Do the Right Thing”; and from a superhero contending with 1990s gang culture in “The Meteor Man,” to a superhero coming to terms with his kingdom’s legacy in “Black Panther.” The same heroes who helped shape the country also helped her build a career and voice in the Afro-future.

Carter first made history more than two decades ago when she became the first African American to be nominated for the costume design Oscar for her work on Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1993. She would make history a second time when she won the costume design Oscar for Ryan Coogler’s 2018 “Black Panther,” becoming the first African American to do so in that category.

She broke the mold for superhero movie costumes with “Black Panther,” creating pioneering looks rooted in African tradition. Because the culture that Coogler created was unique, so were the costumes, which combined elements from many African tribes, and rendered them futuristic.

Additionally, her successful application of 3D printing technology in creating some of the costumes for the movie was considered a landmark for 3D printing in fashion, given the film’s critical and commercial accolades.

“It meant a lot to our community to be able to see a black woman who stayed focused in a career and worked her way to that stage,” said Kevan Hall of The Black Design Collective, who honored Carter with its 1st Annual Scholarship Tribute in April.

“She gave inspiration to those that come through to know that all is possible,” added Angela Dean, co-founder of the Collective. “She’s worked tremendously hard up to this point with very little recognition. We actually came up with the idea to honor her a year or so prior to the win, and have been supporting her long before she won the Oscar.”

Carter could be back in the Oscar race again for designing a wide range of looks for Netflix’s Eddie Murphy period movie, “Dolemite Is My Name,” based on the life of 1970s blaxploitation comedian Rudy Ray Moore. She created as many as 75 costume changes for Murphy, who switched back and forth between playing the performer and his outrageous alter ego, becoming an underground sensation.

“She’s been around for years, doing outstanding, important work, and her Oscar win, and all the recognition she’s now receiving were inevitable,” said Murphy. “She’s worked on about six of my films, and might have done even more, but she’s in such high demand, because she’s the best out there.”

The spotlight that’s now on her is an acknowledgement of her contributions to her craft — the culmination of a lifetime endeavor to preserve African American history through fashion.

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