Ruth Carter on Abstract

This is the first post in a series where I write about episodes of Netflix’s Abstract that I really enjoyed and think you might, too.

Who is Ruth Carter?

Ruth won the Oscar for costume design in Black Panther. The power of costume design is that who characters are on the inside can be reflected on the outside.

A word that came up several times in the interviews with Ruth’s peers was dignity. To understand Ruth is to understand her influence in portraying Black Americans realistically in film for the first time. Two notable films where she did this Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.

Ruth’s Creative Process

  • Observes people in New York City. Clothing says a lot about a person, and you can expand that into stories.
  • Fans would say to Ruth, “oh she designed Black Panther! Tell us your process.” She would respond, “I go home every night and cry in my pillow because I’m scared.” That statement brings her down to earth with the rest of us, doesn’t it? She was overwhelmed by the monumental-ness of the film, the task to create a futuristic world from scratch. She turned to history to help.
  • The process starts with reading the screenplay. Her goal is to translate how beautifully this reads into the visuals the audience can appreciate, since they will never see the screenplay.
  • Oprah told her “art is prayer.” It struck Ruth hard because she had been searching for a spiritual practice, but neither church nor meditation clicked. If I am to read between the lines, I think she took that as permission to immerse herself in what she enjoyed: painting and poetry and of course costume design.

What Blew My Mind?

I underestimated the filmmaking process. When you have the screenplay it’s done, right? Wrong! It’s just the beginning of the project and all these other artists, like the DP and the costume designer, get to come in and do their part. A film is truly a collaboration between many talented artists. Spike Lee said in his interview portion, “as a director you have to be a talent scout.” It’s something I would never thought of, but that’s why he pursued Ruth after first meeting her. Samuel L. Jackson said Ruth cares how you (an actor) feel in your costume because it allows you to do your best work. That speaks again to the power of costume design.

I was surprised and awed at the amount of research Ruth put into each project. She said, “we go to the movies to be entertained and to be educated.” I had never thought about that before, but I believe it to be true. For her, the educational component emphasizes her duty to be accurate when designing costumes.

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