With her latest victory, costume designer Ruth E. Carter became the first Black woman to win multiple Academy Awards. Breaking barriers and setting Oscar records isn’t new to Carter, mind you. In 1992, she became the first African-American nominated in the category, and later was its first Black winner, thanks to 2018’s Black Panther. Having won again for the sequel, Wakanda Forever, she’s also the only person to earn multiple Costume Design Oscars for the same franchise. Considering she’s dedicated so much of her career to the representation of Black history on screen, it feels correct that Carter’s name should forever have a place in the history books…
I have long been a fan of this master artist, falling in love with her work in Spike Lee joints and many a period piece early in my cinephile life. Watching Ruth E. Carter get her due honors in this past decade has been a thrill so incredible it defies reason. She is a costume designer’s costume designer, a living legend in her own right, whose career deserves all the plaudits in the world. If you don’t believe me, you should explore her filmography and get acquainted with the designer’s artistry, her vision. To help that discovery and in the spirit of celebration, here’s a list of recommendations, some stunning pictures, and a few words on tracing her career in film. Enjoy.
SCHOOL DAZE (1988)
Ruth E. Carter, who dedicated her second Oscar to her mother, found her interest in clothing through maternal influence. As a kid, she was taught how to make her own clothes while cultivating an interest in the arts. Indeed, after graduating from the Hampton Institute with a Bachelor of Arts, Carter soon found her place in the theater world. Though she initially thought of pursuing acting, her experience taking care of the costumes in school productions led her down a different path. She worked for the Santa Fe Opera before arriving at the L.A. Theater Center. There, she’d meet the man who would forever change her life.
Spike Lee only had She’s Gotta Have It under his belt when he crossed paths with Ruth E. Carter. Connected through mutual friends, their talks convinced the costume designer to try working in cinema. After time spent on the set of a student film, Carter was ready to make the jump. Logically, her first film was a Spike Lee joint, the musical euphoria that is School Daze. Pulling stylistic cues from Old Hollywood and contemporary Black culture, the movie’s a raucous affair full of memorable sights. The costumes play an essential part in shaping its form and its tone. They sometimes work as tools for comedy and sometimes convey a glamorous dream.
School Daze is streaming on Peacock Premium. You can also rent it on various other services.
DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)
Though she did a Seinfeld episode and a blaxploitation parody directly after School Daze, Carter soon returned to the cinema of Spike Lee. In 1989, it was time to Do The Right Thing. Dressing Rosie Perez in bright red and ready to fight in a striking opening, crystalizing the specific look of a time and place, of the now that’s now then, Carter contributes to the film’s power. Think about that seminal picture, and you’ll soon recall entire outfits, iconography burned into the culture, fire hot.
Do the Right Thing is available, to rent or purchase, on most of the big platforms.
THE FIVE HEARTBEATS (1991)
After musical fantasy, parody, and political provocation, The Five Heartbeats marked Carter’s first foray into straight period drama. Knowing how such films would characterize much of her future career, the project gains the value of a turning point. Moreover, it immediately showcases what makes Carter a perfect collaborator for directors curious to explore a dramatized past. There’s a historian’s research to her work, but there’s also a taste for adding idiosyncrasy as the definition of character and, consequently, cinematic realism.
Tracing the story of a fictional African American quintet in the early 60s, The Five Heartbeats never looks as if it’s populated by magazine covers made flesh. Instead, there’s a lived-in quality, contrasting the efface individuality of stage-wear with more varied personas backstage. The film was also Carter’s first job with director Robert Townsend. Like her recurring work with Spike Lee, this was a strong creative partnership with multiple hits and much sartorial splendor. Hell, before she dressed Black Panther, Carter had already dipped her toes into the Black superhero business with Townsend’s Meteor Man.
The Five Heartbeats is streaming on DirecTV and Cinemax.
MALCOLM X (1992)
Even though Townsend’s musical drama spanned years of historical fashions, its scope was minuscule compared to Ruth E. Carter’s next foray into period filmmaking. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is a veritable epic, tempering the prestige importance of its story with a sense of heightened style that only this director could provide. Carter’s designs follow the same tenet, though her penchant for realism and accuracy is invariable. From exuberant Zoot suits to the somberness of the activist’s final moments, the wardrobe is an ever-changing kaleidoscope that earned the designer her first Oscar nomination.
Malcolm X is streaming on HBO Max and Tubi T.V.
WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (1993)
From one iconic biopic to another, Carter’s next project was the Tina Turner story that got Angela Bassett ever so close to a Best Actress Oscar. Clothing her leading lady from the singer’s teen years to the peak of stardom was no easy feat, with much effort going into creating the illusion of Turner’s physicality. According to the designer herself, she studied Turner so much that, at a certain point, she was perusing fan recordings of concerts, looking for such minute details as the exact number of layers in a skirt.
What’s Love Got to Do With It is available, to rent or purchase, on the major platforms.
1997 was an important year for Ruth E. Carter, counting three major projects and a second Oscar nomination. We’ll get to that later honor soon. But first, let’s appreciate the wild fashions of Robert Townsend’s B.A.P.S., whose slapstick set pieces often depend on the costumes’ impracticability. One particular latex number worn by Halle Berry was devised with a single purpose: it needed to be funny when wet. It’s brilliant stuff, ready for drag parody like you can see on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 13, when Symone dressed Utica as one of the titular Black American Princesses.
B.A.P.S. is available, to rent or purchase, on all of the big services.
A small queen’s poufy silks contrast with the rags of enslaved people fighting for their freedom in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. A massive challenge, the period drama would earn Carter her second Oscar nomination while testing her talents as a researcher of fashion history. It’s easy to find what 1830s high society wore, but what about the oppressed and racialized? Rather than resolving these tensions, the designer weaponizes them, using the American flag as an improvised head-wrap and suggesting the wrongness of white values imposed on African bodies by clothing Djimon Hounsou in ill-fitting finery.
Still, if forced to choose between Carter’s two 1997 historical dramas, I might’ve picked John Singleton’s Rosewood over Spielberg’s buzzier picture.
Amistad is streaming on fuboTV, Paramount Plus, and MGM+.
Immediately after Amistad, Carter seemed intent on ditching somberness for sex-appeal and sweaty stylishness. Look at How Stella Got Her Groove Back’s collection of skimpy resort wear or the electrifying fashions of Summer of Sam, the youthful eros in Love & Basketball. Or better yet, think back to the glory of John Singleton’s Shaft remake, where Ruth E. Carter reinvented blaxploitation’s most famous detective for the new millennium. With a little help from Armani, she clothed Samuel L. Jackson in sharp tailoring, buttery leather cut with an eye for drama. The actor never looked better.
In that same year, Ruth E. Carter did some more playing with old iconography. Instead of empowering paragons of coolness, she regarded vicious caricature for Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. One of the director’s most audacious and confrontational movies, the comedy features Carter’s work at its boldest, most purposefully uncomfortable. If you watch Shaft, make it a double-feature program, so you can fully appreciate this artist’s range.
Shaft is streaming on Amazon Prime Video, fuboTV, Paramount Plus, MGM+, and DirecTV.
BLACK DYNAMITE (2009)
The 2000s were a dark time for Ruth E. Carter fans. As the boom of Black cinema that marked the 1990s faded into memory, talented filmmakers were left without the same array of opportunities they once had. From prestigious projects with loads of Oscar buzz, Carter’s filmography suddenly turns into a wasteland of unambitious comedies and low-budget, low-profile dramas. Serenity is a fun point of sci-fi variation, but the best project from this period has to be Black Dynamite.
Parodying and eulogizing 1970s blaxploitation has long been a hallmark of Carter’s cinematic repertoire, but Black Dynamite takes it to another level. It’s a spoof cum love letter, as precisely designed as the films that have brought the designer to the Dolby Theater over the years.
Black Dynamite is available, to rent or purchase, on most of the major platforms.
Salim Akil’s remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle represents the start of Carter’s modern era of wide praise and well-earned prestige. Taking the story from its midcentury Harlem setting to late 60s Detroit, the movie challenged Carter to recreate Motown glamour in and out of the spotlight. The results are gorgeous, negotiating period actuality with a need for fantasy, for the Hollywood dream setting the screen aflame. From here on out, things started looking up for Ruth E. Carter, including a return to awards shows, Spike Lee’s cinema, and a cavalcade of historical dramas centering the African-American 20th-century experience.
Sparkle is available, to rent or purchase, on most of the major platforms.
LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER (2013)
I chose to highlight The Butler for its decade-spanning narrative, how it clashes the establishment and the youth culture, various styles paraded through the screen and in constant flux. However, it’s hard to go wrong with Ruth E. Carter in the 2010s regarding period pieces. There’s also the restrained elegance of Selma, the Roots remake for T.V., and the smart tailoring of Marshall. At this point, it was only a matter of time before Ruth E. Carter returned to the Academy’s good graces.
The Butler is streaming on Netflix, Hulu, Paramount Plus, The Roku Channel, and Tubi T.V.
BLACK PANTHER (2018)
Despite her varied career, Ruth E. Carter wasn’t known for dabbing into Afrofuturism before she took on Marvel’s Black Panther. Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq has a certain hint of stylized unreality, mixing Ancient Greek theater with contemporary culture, but it wasn’t exactly looking to the future. Thus, the Wakandian fashions of this action film were something of a shock, the most delightful of surprises.
Rather than sinking into historical research to reproduce an accurate vision of the past, Carter studied various African aesthetics and traditions, creating a fantasy rooted in reality. 3-D printing facilitated filigreed armor that looks more like jewelry, while color stories pulled from the Maasai added notes of symbolism. Ndebele adornments are featured throughout, as are motifs inspired by Pharaonic rule. The effect is incredible, a cocktail of references and inspirations that somehow captures a jolt of authenticity. Thanks to the filmmaker’s design genius, we covet, feel, and believe the sci-fi concepts.
The movie required over 700 individual costumes, all created from scratch by Carter’s team, backed by all the resources that come with a Disney production. Such technical matters helped secure the industry’s goodwill, mayhap its awe in the face of all that grandeur. In the end, Carter triumphed and made history, earning her first Academy Award.
Black Panther is streaming on Disney+, DirecTV, T.N.T., T.B.S., and tru T.V.
DOLEMITE IS MY NAME (2019)
After the Oscar win, many predicted a follow-up nomination for Dolemite Is My Name, the Netflix period comedy that, at one point, looked like a viable Eddie Murphy awards vehicle. Once more, Carter recreates the tensions between manufactured showbiz visuals and the distinctive styles that define a character’s personhood and promote the audience’s immersion. Once again, she revisits blaxploitation and 1970s Black cinema, coming up with a wardrobe that’s as much about humor as it is about creating a dazzling tribute to days gone by. If that’s not nomination-worthy, I don’t know what to tell you, AMPAS.
Dolemite Is My Name is streaming on Netflix.
COMING 2 AMERICA (2021)
Though I’m a Ruth E. Carter devotee, I just realized how many remakes and sequels she has done, reworking and reinventing the creation of other costume designers. Such efforts can be underestimated by critics, overshadowed by the original work. Nevertheless, Carter’s wardrobes always shine on their own. Coming 2 America, for example, brings back Akeem of Zamunda and all the African-inspired exuberance that marked his first adventure. Unlike her predecessor, Deborah Nadoolman, Carter didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her Zamundian fashions. However, she won the Costume Designers Guild Award for Contemporary Film.
Coming 2 America is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (2022)
Returning to the MCU, Ruth E. Carter deepened the idea of Wakanda as a complex culture with deep-rooted traditions passed on from ancient times. Moreover, she kept the sense of spectacle of the first movie, even while accommodating the sequel’s more mournful tone. A funeral procession clad in blinding white is an excellent example, as are the various robes modeled by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda. On another level, the designer conceived the garments of another civilization that thrived in isolation.
Rather than multiple African tribal traditions, the ancient peoples of the Americas served as the basis for the Talokan look.
A curious twist to the usual action movie concerns was the aquatic nature of the new characters. This manifests in the materials chosen and how the design behaves under water. Feather-like headdresses make for bizarre-looking hydrodynamics, while a plethora of beaded pieces speaks of practicality and the influence of natural vistas deep in the ocean. Every eye-catching creation is a reminder of Carter’s genius – she is the movie’s undeniable MVP.