The works of Ruth E. Carter
At the entrance to the exhibition space dedicated to “Uncommon Threads: The Works of Ruth E. Carter”, a clip plays in a continuous loop.
It stars the Springfield, Massachusetts-born costume designer who accepts the 2019 Oscar for Best Costume Design for “Black Panther,” the first entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a black lead, tan. Chadwick Boseman.
Carter, a three-time Oscar nominee (previously for Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” in 1992 and Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” in 1997) briefly greeted Lee (who began her film career in 1988 with “School Daze,” and at “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler before nodding to his mother, whom she called her superhero.
She also said: “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design we turned him into an African king,” noting with a smile that “adding vibranium to costumes is very expensive”.
Carter and his vast team of experts have designed and crafted over 700 costumes for “Black Panther,” but lest Marvel geeks all descend on the New Bedford Art Museum to see the costumes worn by T’Challa, Killmonger and Okoye, be warned: there are no costumes from that movie there.
However, there are a number of preliminary sketches, rough sketches, and tribal clothing studies to slightly quench that geeky thirst. And the show as a whole is a powerful, visually stunning affair that reveals Carter’s ingenuity in African and Black American lore and fashion, and the story of the film itself.
The first costume we meet is the one worn by actor Malachi Kirby, when he played Kunta Kinte in the 2016 miniseries “Roots” (a remake of the 1977 miniseries of the same name, based on on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family”).
This is an indigo groom’s coat in “linsey-woolsey”, a blend of linen and wool, dyed so vibrantly that it evokes Kunta Kinte’s past as a Mandingo warrior before his kidnapping. Africa to be forced into slavery.
Two costumes from “Malcolm X”, which featured Denzel Washington, symbolize Malcolm X’s spiritual awakening journey and his rise as a civil rights icon. One of the costumes – reminiscent of his character from “Detroit Red” – is an extremely bright scarlet zoot costume, complete with a wide-brimmed black velvet hat in the shape of a flying saucer and a pair of two-tone shoes.
X himself noted of his clothes at the time: “I caused a minor collision, a driver pulled over to look at me and the driver behind him hit him.”
Carter makes up for that flamboyance with a low-key gray suit, the kind he wore after becoming a Muslim, and it evokes both pride and humility. It is associated with a lambskin cap which has become his personal trademark.
Much less ostentatious than the “Malcolm X” zoot costume are the pair of costumes on display that Carter created for Ava DuVernay’s 2014 movie “Selma”. To outfit Martin Luther King, Jr., as portrayed by David Oyelowo Carter chose a crisp white short-sleeved shirt, a beige-edged beret, workman’s shoes, and intentionally drab pants.
Conversely, a costume chosen for actress Carmen Ejogo, playing Coretta Scott King, is a knee-length skirt with a matching jacket, edged in red and made discreetly elegant with a pearl necklace.
From the same film is a dress worn by Oprah Winfrey when she played civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper, who was involved in the voting rights movement. The garment is magenta and flamboyantly patterned and can be understood to represent “Sunday best” clothing, a sartorial recognition of the importance of registering to vote.
Showing up to register to vote was as important – perhaps more important – than attending the Sunday service.
Carter’s contributions to Craig Brewer’s ‘Dolemite is My Name’ of 2019 are a celebration of an exuberant sort of fashion. The film starred Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore in real life, the self-styled ‘godfather of rap’ and stand-up comedian who would reinvent himself as Dolemite, an urban dandy and a movie star. of kung fu of blaxplotation in the making.
For some of Murphy’s costumes, Carter used fabric from the 1970s that had been stored as a corpse for decades. She and her team revitalized and dyed the material to give it new pop.
The last film featured is Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing, an explosive work about a riot in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood on the hottest day of the year. Lee played Mookie, a pizza delivery boy. Her iconic costume not so subtly mimics the colors of the Italian flag and is adorned with the character’s name on her left chest.
There is a common thread throughout the exhibition and it is Carter’s devotion to telling the story of African and Black American culture through costume. She brilliantly straddles the intersection of American history and pop culture.
From the days of slavery and human servitude represented by “Roots”, to the heyday of the civil rights movement of “Malcolm X” and “Selma” and to the era of culturally significant blaxploitaion linked to “Dolemite is my name”, Carter and his crew nail him down.
And what about “Doing the right thing?” It’s a thirty-two year old movie that’s as relevant today as it was when it was released. The critical moment is when Radio Raheem is strangled to death by the baton of a cop despite the cries and pleas of the spectators. Baton or knee … the story is the same.
And to quote Samuel L. Jackson in the same movie, playing DJ Mister Senor Love Daddy:
“And that’s the truth, Ruth!
“Uncommon Threads: The Works of Ruth E. Carter” was curated by Jamie Uretsky and eleven other contributing curators, including Jes Neal and Micha Broadnax of Rememory Consulting, and Julia Long, Carter’s personal archivist.
It will be on display at the New Bedford Art Museum / Art Works !, 608 Pleasant Street, New Bedford until November 14.