Interview with Ruth Carter

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This piece was produced in partnership with Blacktree TV. Our Producer Tre Williams conducted the interview with Ruth Carter.

Ruth Carter is a Hollywood costume designer who grew up in Springfield. Her career spans a long list of major motion pictures, and she is best known for her work on Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” receiving Academy Award nominations for both films. Carter’s most recent work can be seen in “Selma,” a film about the trio of marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. “I first started as an intern in the costume shop at StageWest and did everything from crafts to sewing and working backstage,” said Carter, about her time at Springfield’s best-known playhouse now called City Stage. While she learned to sew on her mother’s old sewing machine, that wasn’t the thing that propelled her into costume design. Carter recalled the times when she and her two brothers, Robert and Roy, would draw together. Those occasions, filled with paper, pencils and sibling sociability, began her love for the arts. After she graduated from Springfield’s Technical High School, she went on to study at Hampton University and interned at the Santa Fe Opera before moving to Los Angeles in 1986. She met director Spike Lee while working at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. He hired her to work on his second film, “School Daze,” and they have worked together ever since. “Spike Lee has a very specific vision. You either love Spike Lee movies or you don’t. I’ve seen both sides,” said Carter. “I like the mainstream movies, but it’s nice to work with someone who is going to be a little more quirky and ask for you to do something a little more unusual, to ask for something a little over the top and different. That doesn’t come around a lot.” Carter’s hard work paid off when she was nominated for her first Oscar in costume design in 1993 for her work on Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” Her second nomination came in 1998 for her work on Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad.” “The actual work for ‘Amistad’ was really hard. I feel like it overwhelmed me at times but I stuck in there and really got my vision on screen,” said Carter. “The great thing about ‘Amistad’ was they flew me literally around the world to find the clothes. I was in London at famous costume shops, then I went to Italy. It was so exciting, and I studied the period while I was traveling.” Carter joked about how, unlike her more streamlined traveling today with an iPad and as little luggage as possible, she had to carry books, reference materials and files the whole way through Europe. The film “Sparkle,” about a singing group similar to the Supremes, was Carter’s ultimate pick. Although it didn’t do well at the box office, grossing only $24.3 million, she was content to re-create fashion from the 1960s and design stunning dresses for the female cast. “I started my career with a lot of menswear in ‘Mo Better Blues’ with Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson,” said Carter. “Here, though, I finally got to really do a woman’s story and it was great.” Carter, the costume designer for “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” admitted that meeting Oprah for the first time was a tad surreal. “She could have hired a whole team of people to build her clothes but she allowed me to do it when she didn’t have to. She was so kind and down to earth about the whole process because she knew we were doing that film on a shoestring,” said Carter. “I remember after one of her fittings, her driver ran to the store to pick up something. He wasn’t back yet and we were the only ones in the fitting room. I had a couch and a chair in the room, just like on the ‘Oprah’ show, and we were sitting on them. I wondered if I should have been interviewing her because she was in my office?” Carter’s latest film, “Selma,” did not get nominated by the Academy for costume design this year but did get Oscar nods for Best Picture and Original Song. “It’s a very tough area, costume design, with nominations,” said Carter. “When you have films that come out like ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Maleficent,’ those films are designed to go after the nominations. They get the budgets to do what they have to do, to make everything from scratch and to go all over the world. When there are four or five of those, it’s hard to give a movie like ‘Selma’ the same attention because it’s not necessarily a costume piece but a Civil Rights piece.” When “The Butler” didn’t win, Carter took to heart something very important: you can’t base your success on the award. “As much as we all want it and wish for it with fingers crossed, you just can’t. You’re picked by your peers of costume designers who vote on which five out of 300 films will be the top five movies of the year for costumes. A success would be having my work be part of a film that has a really long life. That is it. I feel like ‘Selma’ is that film for me.”

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