Lady Sings the Blues
Ruth E. Carter: 5 Films That Have Inspired My Costume Design
Ruth E. Carter
Ruth E. Carter
Costume Designer

Ruth E. Carter's body of work tells a story of Black excellence that spans centuries. The prolific designer has costumed 18th century African warriors, 19th century freedom fighters and multiple Civil Rights icons, along with everyone from the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll to the Godfather of Rap, from B.A.P.S to Marvel's first Black superhero.

In 1993, Carter became the first Black costume designer to be nominated for Best Costume Design for her work on Spike Lee's Malcolm X. (She earned a second nomination for 1997's Amistad.) In 2019, she won the Oscar for Black Panther, becoming the first Black costume designer to do so. As for what she remembers most from that night?

"Panic," she says with a laugh. "When I stood at the mic, Spike Lee was there in front of me, and I went off my little card and I thanked him for my start. I told him, 'I hope that this makes you proud.' And he jumped up out of his chair. That's the best memory of receiving that award. Also, when I got on stage, the guy who gave it to me" — Brian Tyree Henry — "bowed his head, and that was cool. But everything else is a blur."

She's now returned for the movie's sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. (And will remain in the Marvel sandbox for Blade, starring two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali.) For Carter, awards season is one thing, but she feels a particular pride during another time of the year: Halloween.

"It's empowering the kids, that's what I love about it!" she exclaims. "They were ready for that Black Panther to come about! And girls were ready for the Dora. They didn't have to worry about wearing a cheerleader skirt and a triangle top; they could put on some tights and go be a Dora. I love that."

It's a long way from Hampton University, where Carter only tried her hand at doing costumes when she wasn't cast in the college play. She later made her way to L.A., where she met Spike Lee while working at the Los Angeles Theater Center. The rest is history.

Below, Carter shares with A.frame five of the films that made her into the costume designer she is today.

MORE: 'I Don't Do Typical Marvel Movies': How Ruth E. Carter Approached Costuming 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' (Exclusive)

1
Super Fly
1972
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Directed by: Gordon Parks Jr. | Costumes by: Nate Adams

In my childhood, the Blaxploitation era of the '70s was huge, because it was so rich with storytelling. As a young girl, Shaft, Super Fly, The Mack, they had great clothes, and they influenced fashion for people. If you ever saw the video of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight at Madison Square Garden, they show all the people going into the Garden, and the pageantry is out of this world! And it's influenced by those films, that we didn't even think of them as exploitation films.

2
Claudine
1974
Claudine

Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel

Directed by: John Berry | Costumes by: Bernard Johnson

When you think of the films that were telling the story of urban life in New York, I was influenced by it. Because it was cool, and it was what I was seeing on the street as well as watching in the movies. Films like Claudine, this story of a single parent. You know, I came from a single parent household. And how she was still a woman, and still cool, and her kids were all in-sync. Those movies influenced me.

3
The Grapes of Wrath
1940
The Grapes of Wrath
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Directed by: John Ford | Costumes by: Gwen Wakeling

I was also influenced when I watched The Grapes of Wrath as a kid. The simplicity of how that story was told in black-and-white really influenced me. And I named my little cat Peter Bumpilini. There's a character in the film named 'Peter Bumpilini,' and I was like, 'That's my kitten's name.' I was a little bit weird I guess, but I swear to you, I named my kitten Peter Bumpilini from Grapes of Wrath.

4
Lady Sings the Blues
1972
Lady Sings the Blues

Directed by: Sidney J. Furie | Costumes by: Ray Aghayan, Norma Koch and Bob Mackie

Lady Sings the Blues had a huge impact on me as a designer. Hands down, it is one of my favorite films. Diana Ross' performance, and Billy Dee Williams, and the clothes Bob Mackie designed were amazing. I wanted to be a costume designer when I saw Lady Sings the Blues. I'd come out of theater, and I did a lot of period work in theater, so I was really into watching period films. I was examining some really special pieces like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and Sty of the Blind Pig, and Raisin in the Sun. I was doing those plays in college. So, when I saw that film, I was like, 'I've been doing that, and I can do that for this medium. I just need to understand the medium.'

5
The Color Purple
1985
The Color Purple
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Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Costumes by: Aggie Guerard Rodgers

I had just moved to L.A. and somebody invited me to go to the screening of The Color Purple. I sat there, and I was enthralled in it. When I saw Margaret Avery walking down the country road, going to the church, and singing that song, and everybody coming out of the juke joint, I was like, 'Hey, I can do this, this is the world that I want to be in.'

I remember sitting through the credits — because everybody in Hollywood sits through the credits. It was one of the first times I sat through the credits, and I saw so many people in the costume department! And I was like, 'My name is going to be there one day.'

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