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 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 Keegan-Michael 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 world premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival next month, will hit theaters Oct. 4 and 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-the-top 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.
“I noticed all of the costume changes that he had, and had an illustrator sit down and look at every angle of the costumes and illustrate them,” said Carter. “That took some time.”
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.”