Designing ‘Dolemite’ look was her game
Ruth E. Carter goes from ‘Panther’ to blaxploitation
When Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter signed on to outfit the stars of Netflix’s upcoming dramedy “Dolemite Is My Name,” she did it with the caveat that the costumes themselves wouldn’t serve as just another punchline in the story.
“This is not a film where you make fun of everybody and you laugh because everybody’s got a big Afro and bell-bottoms,” she said. “This is a film where you look a little bit deeper into all of the details about this time and you make people look good.”
The film stars Eddie Murphy as the real-life Rudy Ray Moore, a floundering comedian determined to claw his way into the spotlight. He manages to do just that by creating the alter ego Dolemite, an obscene pimp caricature borrowed from the street mythology of 1970s Los Angeles.
With Dolemite, Moore quickly transitions from disgruntled record store employee to stage act to purveyor of his own illicit comedy albums before eventually becoming a movie star against all odds. Comedians KeeganMichael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess and Da’Vine Joy Randolph round out the cast, along with a memorable comedic turn by Wesley Snipes.
The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, will hit Netflix streaming on Oct. 25.
Though Carter (who won an Oscar last year for her work on “Black Panther”) has crafted period costumes for almost a dozen films — including the ’70s-specific movies “Crooklyn” (1994) and “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (1993) — the wardrobe for “Dolemite” was more exaggerated and over-thetop than anything she’s constructed since 2009’s blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite.”
“I wanted to really show the ’70s fashion that I knew and remembered and that people loved,” she said. “The urban fashion kind of created its own look. There were the hippies with their earth shoes and fringe vests or you could be urban and do that kind of pimp, prostitute look.”
Carter drew inspiration for costumes directly from Moore’s own films, leaning heavily on his 1975 feature debut “Dolemite” whose slapdash production is illustrated in the Netflix film.
She also referenced her vast stores of ’70s fashion magazines, including Ebony, Esquire and the now-defunct Eleganza catalog.
“Richard Roundtree, who plays ‘Shaft,’ was a fashion model at the time for the magazine,” Carter recalled.
“It showed the urban fashions which, in many ways, mimicked the blaxploitation era of pimp culture: the maxi coats with the fur collar, the homburg, polyester double-knit jumpsuits, matador pants, marshmallow shoes. I remember as a kid how people would love to look at that magazine and just dream about ordering some of that stuff.”
With just six weeks of prep, Carter had to work fast. After gathering reference points, her first order of business was to source costumes and fabrics from costumers across Los Angeles to outfit the seven stars of the film. Murphy’s character alone required between 35 and 40 costumes.
“Dolemite/Rudy Ray Moore was so interesting in his costume choices that we tried to do it exactly the way he did it, so we had to build everything,” she said.
Rather than hunting down readymade ’70s-style costumes, Carter opted instead to procure authentic fabrics and materials from the decade to make her own.
“I went to a fabric store that had fabrics that were never bought from the ’70s and ’80s and collected double knit polyester, that particular style of denim and all of those interesting combinations of pastel, plaid and wovens and (supplemented them with) the shelves and shelves of ’70s fabrics I just had in my studio,” she said.
After working with Murphy a handful of times on films like “Daddy Day Care,” “Meet Dave,” “Dr. Dolittle 2” “Imagine That” and in the upcoming “Coming 2 America,” the veteran comedian and veteran costumer have honed a creative shorthand that makes collaborating seamless.
“I’ve always understood that he as a performer is a transformationist,” said Carter. “
And so with that understanding, we go through a process where he’s working on portraying a character and I’m doing the same, but with clothing. I cannot disrupt his process by making things encumbered, making him uncomfortable. I have to keep his process and mine fluid. So that’s what I focus on, how do we bridge the gap between function and then the look?”
In addition to being familiar with each other’s creative processes, Murphy and Carter also benefited from having similar memories of the ‘70s.
“I think because Eddie and I are about the same age we remember the ‘70s the same way,” Carter said. “I gave him a pair of shoes and they’re called marshmallows, they’re platform shoes that had a white heel and a white platform that was usually like a spongy material. And he’s like ‘Oh, yeah, I remember marshmallows. I had a pair.”
Eddie Murphy and, from left, Craig Robinson, Mike Epps, Tituss Burgess and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in a scene from “Dolemite is My Name.”