There is a huge part of me that’s embarrassed to admit that I just found out who Ruth Carter is — only of the best costume designers on Earth! Having started out with Spike Lee in his first film (School Daze, 1988) and over 10 more since, including Malcom X (1992) , this woman has been a trailblazer in her field and an absolute advocate for Black culture — but really any culture. Ruth has been hired for over 40 films by the likes of Steven Spielberg for Amistad (1997), by Ava DuVerney for Selma (2014) and Ryan Coogler for Black Panther (2018). Ruth is the first person called when it comes to films that are supposed to be authentic, historically heavy and (more often than not), culturally significant.
Season 2 of Netflix’s “Abstract” really made respect Ruth Carter and her craft as she explained that she is not just designing “costumes” but creating stories through the visual representation of the person. Everyone who spoke of her in the film told of how genuine Ruth made the attire — so that it doesn’t feel like you are wearing a strange custom, rather the actual clothing of the character, providing the actor with the final piece that turns them into who they are supposed to be.
In her acceptance speech for her Academy Award for Custome Design for Black Panther, the pride she felt was evident. After a brief moment of disbelief saying, “Wow, I got it,” she thanked Spike Lee, first, for giving her her start. I found this to be such an admirable gesture as she understands that the partnership she had with Spike truly helped her career and, in turn, she put the spotlight back on him. “Thank you for my start,” she said. “I hope this make you proud.” She touched on the honor she felt being able to make a superhero film and helping develop “the empowered way women look and lead on screen”, for which I am eternally grateful. While she acknowledged the edge she gained from using 3D printing, nothing compares to the way she describes her joy in creating the costumes for the Dora Milaje, the tribe of women warriors in Black Panther. I agree with her feeing that the “costume honors the female form and doesn’t exploit it.” It shows that “you can be beautiful and be a warrior,” and that was a message I had never heard before — that is something that will live with me from this day forward.
What I admire most about Ruth is I that really feel that she was once a girl just like me. Especially because she need her acceptance speech by thanking her mom: “Mom, thank you for teaching me about people and their stories. You are the original superhero.” In Abstract, she talks about dressing the actors for Baby Boy and how she learned all of the terminology from her very own husband. She gives a heartbreaking account of their love for each other and the tragic end to his life and I would have never imaged that a woman so beautiful and so successful could have this pain in her life. It goes to show that we are all going through something, but Ruth shows me that it is possible to keep going after trauma. In her backstage speech at the 2018 Academy Awards, she answered a question from a journalist who asked what she thinks it means for her to have been the first African America to win the award: “The door is wide open,” she proclaimed. “Hopefully this means that there is hope.” Another journalist asked what she would say to her younger self and this is now something I tell myself on the daily: “Through the hard work and whatever you migth be afraid of, you should fear not because tomorrow is yours.”
Ruth is a true inspiration for me and I hope she’s motivated you a bit. I love to see strong, brown women being truthful to their experiences. Having more women like this in the public eye will definitely inspire young women like myself and hopefully encourage the next generation to knock the doors off the hinges so they’ll never close again. If Ruth is working on the outfits for a film, I hope you go out and support, she deserves it.