The frequency illusion, in which you notice or learn something for the first time and then start to see it everywhere, happened to me when Ruth E. Carter won her second Oscar this year. On a night of historical first-timers, Carter’s win in Best Costume Design in Wakanda Forever, which made her the first Black woman to score two Oscars in any category (not to overshadow her previous accomplishment of being the first Black woman to win in that category just four years earlier), opened a door of curiosity for me. Since the beginning of my attention span with the Oscars about ten years ago, and with the exception of Jenny Beavan’s work for Mad Max: Fury Road, the category had appeared to me like a cyclical endorsement for long tailcoats and powdered wigs to sweep every year. For a superhero movie to succeed here is a feat, but for a movie that celebrates Blackness through Afrofuturism and traditions is the feat. For me, Carter helped catapult the category into the stratosphere of “below-the-line” acclaim like Hans Zimmer or Roger Deakins, where the name isn’t propelled by the number of nominations, but by the recognition of their work.
But the “illusion” is that Carter’s recent wins doesn’t accurately reflect the span of her career, which started when she was recruited to work on Spike Lee’s second film, School Daze, in 1988. Off the recommendations of those who enjoy ‘90s-bonkers film with satisfactory fairytale endings, I watched 1997’s B.A.P.S this past summer. It’s funny to watch if you had only known Halle Berry as Oscar winner and the household IT girl of the ‘00s (the line “It go Halle Berry or hallelujah” is wired to play in my head when I see Berry appear in an all-guns-no-smiles action thriller) because her role as the silly, good-hearted Nisi from Georgia trying to do right in white-rich Hollywood feels like an early, deep-cut kind of joy. And sure enough, there at the beginning of the credits was Carter’s name for Costume Design. It might have meant nothing to me a few years ago, though I knew about Berry’s rubber orange jumpsuit prior to the movie, accompanied by Natalie Desselle’s bright yellow leopard-print attire, as the iconic best-friend costume get-up. The scene where Nisi and Mickey (Desselle) are waiting in line to audition for a music video is unmistakably iconic, as they choose to strut their outstanding personalities and taste among the efforted tans and thin legs of L.A. They are unabashedly proud of each other and of themselves, which comes clear in their improptu dance sequence on the sidewalk.
Thankfully and rightfully, there is a lot of information about Carter’s working legacy on sets — indie, big-studio, contemporary, historical, Black Hollywood, the pilot episode of Seinfeld. I recommend reading her book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture for narrative authenticity, but whether it’s written or verbal, Carter’s voice is underlined with a humbleness for the arsenal of knowledge and flexibility that she had to equip throughout the years.
And man, what a job. Carter has been by Spike Lee’s side through his career highs (Do the Right Thing) and lows (Oldboy – #releasetheSpikeLeeJoint!), worked with Gina Prince-Bythewood for her first film Love & Basketball, and traveled with Steven Spielberg for Amistad. She has been in the game long enough to meet Ryan Coogler, who had seen Malcolm X as a child and knew that he wanted Carter to work on “Motherland” — Marvel’s secret project now known to be Black Panther. Her book is a recollection of fun details for each project: watching Chadwick Boseman trying on the Black Panther suit in her office, helping Laurence Fishburne with a patch that fell off his military jacket in School Daze, chasing after a tea-stained shirt collar through different trash disposals when a design assistant had accidentally mistaken it for trash. It also embodies that the skill of a costume designer thinking about a few things: fashion that has already happened, fashion that is currently happening, and fashion dreamt from scratch. That includes creating a sparkly gold dress where the tinsels synchronize with Angela Bassett’s stage shimmies in What’s Love Got to Do with It, dressing Tyrese Gibson in wife-beaters and the women in variations of bright pink to reflect the southern L.A. community in Baby Boy, and her first technical superhero outfit for Robert Townsend in Meteor Man.
In addition The Art of Ruth E. Carter‘s illumination of the costume designer, the Coolidge Corner will be also honoring her through their curation of Carter’s work in five films, leading up to Black Panther on October 15 with a post-Q&A by the one and only. Here, I wanted to take the opportunity to write something I’ve fantasized about: fit checks. In conjunction with the Coolidge’s weekly screenings, I’ll share my favorite pieces from Carter’s extensive designs. It’ll be tuned to what I think looks good and why, which might resemble a less-salacious Daily Mail description of celebrity pap shots.
Starting on 9/13, the Coolidge Corner Theatre will be screening five films showcasing Carter’s work in costume design, leading up to an in-person Q&A with Carter. The schedule is as followed:
Wednesday, 9/13: School Daze (1988) dir. Spike Lee (35 mm)
Wednesday, 9/27: Black Dynamite (2009) dir. Scott Sanders (35mm)
Wednesday, 10/4: Selma (2014) dir. Ava DuVernay
Wednesday, 10/11: Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee (35mm)
Sunday, 10/15: Black Panther (2018) dir. Ryan Coogler (followed by Q&A with Ruth Carter)