Costume designer Ruth E. Carter was given the prestigious Coolidge Award on Sunday night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, where she gave remarks tracing her life from growing up in Springfield, MA to an Oscar-winning career in the film industry, going “toe to toe” with Denzel Washington and being mentored by Spike Lee.
Established in 2004, the Coolidge Award aims to honor film artists across disciplines whose work is “specifically original and challenging,” according to Katherine Tallman, CEO of the Coolidge Corner Theatre Foundation. Previous award winners include Meryl Streep, Viggo Mortensen, and Jane Fonda.
Carter is a two-time Academy Award-winning costume designer known for her work on such films as “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” “Malcolm X” and “Do The Right Thing.”
“Ruth Carter epitomizes the intent of the Coolidge Award,” Tallman said. “Over the past 30 years, she has shaped the story of the Black experience in cinema, television, and theater through costume design.”
After Tallman’s introduction, a reel celebrating Carter’s work was shown and Callie Crossley, a GBH radio and podcast host, joined the designer on stage for a discussion about her career.
“Ruth E. Carter, you are the manifestation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” Crossley said.
Carter recalled her older brother, an artist, often left Carter and her siblings paint materials to play with. A summer program she took part in at Amherst College, called Uhuru SaSa, also showed her the importance of Black artistry.
“Someone gave me a Sonia Sanchez poem … and asked me to memorize it,” Carter said. “I memorized that poem and never forgot it my whole life because it gave me something to hold onto.”
Carter recalled her first experience role as a costume designer, the result of wanting to get involved in a play but not getting an acting role while a student at Hampton University.
“I was on a pursuit to learn more about it and every play that was done at the theater from then on I was the costume designer on it. I really had time to exercise the craft,” Carter said.
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Her first few jobs in the industry taught her the value of teamwork and listening.
“It really is a process of listening, because I don’t want to be on my own island,” she said. “I want to collaborate. Collaboration is a big part of the filmmaking process. So I have to listen to what the director is trying to do and interpret that in the voice of a costume designer. I have to hear what the [director of photography] is planning for the lighting design … so I know how to enhance that.”
Carter described working with Denzel Washington as Malcolm X as her favorite collaboration.
“Denzel was so intense,” she said. “I was determined to be toe to toe with him. If he’s got this research, I was going to make sure I had something to teach him about the way they tie the neck ties or the way that the hats were worn. He was always intrigued. He was always very much in character.”
Carter said that she is proud of films like “Malcolm X,” “Sparkle” and “Amistad” that focus on costume design as a way to help bring the movie to life.
“It’s the ability to bring these images off the page and have them realized in a film and not only just sewing them and having something to put on a body, but telling the story of them and really engaging with them,” she said.
Carter owes her career, she said, to director Spike Lee, who gave her her first professional opportunities in “School Daze” and other movies.
“When I won my Oscar, I got up on stage and the first person I saw sitting four rows back was Spike Lee,” Carter said. “He wasn’t in my speech. He wasn’t there. And I thought, I have to say something to him. And I said, ‘Thank you Spike Lee for my start. I hope this makes you proud.’”
The award ceremony came on the birthday of her biggest inspiration — her mother.
“That ‘people person’ training that my mom gave me allows me to accept people for their differences and those differences become really beautiful thing,” Carter said.
“I didn’t want to be the first Black costume designer,” she said. ”I just wanted to be a great costume designer. And that’s what I feel I have put into the work, and I feel that that is the thing that resonates with the students and the young fashion designers and costume designers I talk to. And I hope that that keeps resonating with young people for generations to come.”