Tue. Dec 10th, 2019

Interview: Marci Rodgers, costume designer behind the 70s duds in ‘BlacKkKlansman’

The impossibly stylish Marci Rodgers contemplates her next project (photo: Instagram)

Marci Rodgers always wanted to be a costume designer but she didn’t start out that way. While studying law at Howard University she would often side trip to elicit mentorships from renowned costume designers to help hone her craft.

A chance meeting with Spike Lee changed her course forever and now she is behind the costumes for one of the year’s most-talked about films, Lee’s Cannes-winning BlacKkKlansman, based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to join the Colorado Springs Police Department in the late 70s. The film utilizes Stallworth’s memoir “Black Klansman: A Memoir” and details the outrageous tale of Stallworth infiltrating, and becoming a card-carrying member of, the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. The film recently enjoyed a third robust box office weekend and currently ranks among his top 5 grossing films.

With just a few credits to her name, including all 10 episodes of She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee’s Netflix series adaptation of his first film, Rodgers, herself a bit of a fashion icon (just check out her Instagram), has quickly made a name for herself with her keen eye, impeccable attention to detail and general badassery.

Marci chatted with me this week on how she got her start, sourcing the authentic 70s looks for BlacKkKlansman and the impact of a film so important to today’s conversations about race.

What’s your background, how did you become interested in costume design?

I was at Howard University School of Law and I had a bit of time off, and during that time I was wardrobe styling but in search of trying to really figure out what I wanted to do. I would say, and I truly believe, I manifested that I wanted to be a costume designer. So then I reached out to who became my first mentor, Reggie Ray, who was a Broadway costume designer, but he didn’t get back to me right away. Then I traveled to London to study abroad; I did a short course there in fashion design and marketing.

While there I was reading The Alchemist and I was really trying to find the core of why I wanted to transition from education into entertainment. So when I arrived back, I met with Reggie and he took me under his wing as his assistant. I assisted him on his shows in DC as well as Broadway. Shortly thereafter I visited the University of Maryland and I met Helen Huang, who is the director of the costume design program there. I sent her a thank you letter, thank you for your time. I would say two weeks after I sent her the letter, she responded to me and told me she had an assistantship available. Now being in academia, I knew that that meant a full scholarship so I didn’t really question it. I just was really excited because I was getting closer and closer to what I had said was starting to manifest, which would then be a costume designer. So I attended University of Maryland. I graduated in two and a half years out of a three-year program where I was the commencement speaker.

And in between that, actually my second year is when I met Paul Tazwell (Tony Award winning costume designer for Hamilton). He also became a bit of a mentor after I graduated and then after that I met Ann Roth (This is Our Youth, Fish in the Dark), who I assisted on a couple of shows on Broadway.

How did connect with Spike Lee?

Rodgers with ‘BlacKkKlansman‘ director Spike Lee

I met Mr. Lee at my mentor Reggie Ray’s premiere of Holler if Ya Hear Me, which was a Broadway play. I worked up enough nerve to go up and say hi to him. I introduced myself; he asked me why I was there. I said because I was assisting my mentor and he said, “That doesn’t really answer my question,” kind of keeping me on my toes, which is fair. And I explained to him, I guess I passed the test, so he told me he wanted me to reach out to Ruth Carter, who had been his costume designer pretty much my whole life prior to me coming in. So I reached out to her then maybe six months later, I was still fresh out of school for the summer, she reached out to me and tell me she wanted me to work on Chi-Raq, I’m from Chicago, so it was great for me to go home and be working in this field I was trying to learn more about. I assisted her on Chi-Raq and then came back to Maryland to graduate.

Just prior to graduation, Spike offered me the position to design for She’s Gotta Have It [for Netflix]. Also at that time, while I was designing professionally and in DC at Grad school, my mentor died. A lot of the theaters knew my, knew my process and my upbringing in theater and that I would pretty much be able to carry the torch. So that’s how I started off in costume design.

You’re right, you did manifest that yourself. You said ‘this is what I want’ and then you got it. For BlacKkKlansman, what were your main sources for researching the period?

Well, I went back to Howard. Well, let’s back up. When I initially got the script, Spike called me and said, “Hey, I have a script for you to read.” I was actually designing to show in Dominican Republic at the time and I said, okay. He said, “Well, when are you available?” I said, “I’m available.” I was actually wrapping that show three weeks from the time he called me. So I read the script and I immediately watched Birth of a Nation and I watched Gone with the Wind and I actually watched Malcolm X, strangely enough. I walked out of the room, it was like a common area, and I was with one of the producers and she looked at me, she’s like, “What’s wrong?” I was like, “I just watch Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Malcolm X and she was like, “I need to stay out of your way.” (laughs) Like probably I need to digest all this information. So I come back to DC, because at the time I was living in DC. The day before the riots [Charlottesville], that night I landed the day before the riots, and the next morning I wake up to David Duke, which is in the movie when he’s speaking to the small crowd. I wake up to that. I had just read the script again on the plane. So it’s kind of like a weird for me, you know, because I’m like, wow, I just read the script and now I see the real life David Duke, who I had started to preliminary research on.

I transitioned to New York, started to do a little bit of research here just for a particularly the Black Student Union. I looked through all of the Essence magazines back in that era. I looked through Jet magazine. I looked into Kwame Ture (played by Corey Hawkins in the film) just to kind of see like what his uniform was; they actually have a special archive for him. Then I went to the Library of Congress and was able to find more information on Colorado Springs and the Ku Klux Klan at the time, like the members of the Ku Klux Klan. So I’m getting all this information; I’m just like sucking it all in and then I really started looking through old Sears catalogs and like, archived patterns and what fabrics were used because I didn’t want there to be any errors. I actually was born in the eighties. So really what I trying to do was create a context and a resource for myself that I could follow and make sure it was period accurate because I was aware that most of the people who might see this film lived in the 70s and they are my critics.

I’m curious if there was a regional element that came into play in designing for the period that was specific to Colorado Springs say, versus designing for 1979 New York?

I want to say liberally, yes and no. I mean everything was Colorado Springs, but I think Soul Train was a really big influence in the African-American community at that time. I mean for me, I don’t remember since I’m an 80s baby, but I remember being intrigued by the costumes, or actually show the clothing, the dancers were wearing. So I think I think TV hope projected fashion to the African-American community, you know, where there was probably, and I’m sure there was a through line. What I heard from people who lived in the 70s who didn’t grow up in New York was like, ‘The costumes look real. Like I actually felt like I was back in the 70s.’

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

I imagine you were able to utilize secondhand stores pretty well too.

Well, I pulled a lot from Daybreak, which is a vintage house in Albany, New York. She is a gem, like she has pretty much everything. I hand selected costumes myself. I drove up there, I had a team member and I drove up there. Whatever you saw on screen, I pretty much approved. I shopped at Beacon’s Closet. I shopped there a lot. It’s in Chelsea, they have like, awesome 70s coats, like hit everything right on the nail.

Did you have any specific inspirations for Patrice’s costumes?

For sure. Patrice Dumas (played in the film by Laura Harrier) was influenced by Kathleen Cleaver and I would say it’s pretty much an homage or a marriage with Angela Davis because during that time is the Black Panther party, so they had a uniform, as you know, they just wore all black. But with Patrice and even some pictures that I researched of Kathleen Cleaver, there are little nuances in jewelry here and there. Like she’d never, she wore sophisticated jewelry that had its own characteristics, if that makes sense. Everybody keeps asking me about the pick, the pick necklace that Ron gives her. That actually came from Spike. But there were earrings and jewelry that I replicated from Kathleen.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth and Laura Harrier as Patrice in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Were there specific inspirations for Ron as well?

Totally Ron Stallworth. What happened was, there was a reading and Mr. Stallworth was there and after the reading I worked up enough nerve to go ask him. I said I want her to picture you as best as possible. I mean, given, we know this is Hollywood so it’ll have a little bit of flair to it, but to let me know, ask them to let me know what he wore, what nuances he wore that made him feel cool when he was coming from his professional world into the student union world. Um, and he told me that he was certain accessories. So that’s why you see like the different necklaces made of suede and the tiger’s eye or the rings and bracelets he had on.

How difficult was it to create the outfits for the KKK members considering how much of a lightening bolt of hate they represent?

(pause) Well, to be honest with you, I researched and prepped; I watched so many KKK videos. And documentaries on the KKK that thankfully I didn’t really have that much time to react to it because I just wanted to make sure it was accurate, particularly the patches because, again, they’re my critics as well because this is a true story. The Klan is still alive and well, whether or not, you know, it’s invisible, so to speak. So like I was very, very, very adamant about those robes looking the way that they look, studying pictures of David Duke and the robe he wore. I was trying to dig to up as much information as I could, even the ranking. I found a handbook that I shared with Mr. Lee and the production designer Curt [Beech] have like all of the robes known to man that are in the Klan and it broke down everything. Like what they have, it’s really like a structure, to be honest. Yeah. But I will say the scene where we see they light the cross on fire? That was emotional for me because, regardless of people wearing those costumes, it still was, it was a symbol and it was something that I never thought…thankfully we were doing this for entertainment or a movie…but to see that hatred and evilness that was so pure in a white robe was a lot to take in at that time.

Yes, absolutely. I’m sure. Were a lot of a description of costumes in the script or did you have a certain amount of freedom there?

Actually Flip (played by Adam Driver) was descriptive. That’s why he wore plaid. He wore plaid shirts. That’s actually noted in Mr. Stallworth’s book. But I would say mostly no, you see them sometimes in Nike. Like that vintage Nike sweatshirt John (David Washington) wears. You know, Spike is like a poster child for Nike. So he was really excited about that. Other than that, the organization, there were through lines, like descriptors of what they should wear. When I did my research, I separated everybody; at least how I thought they should look, other than Flip.

Are you surprised at all at the response that the film has gotten? It’s kind of a big deal.

No, I mean with Spike it’s like – and we use this word loosely sometimes, but I truly think it’s an accurate – he’s a visionary and he’s intuitive and I think no one really knew how the movie was gonna come out because we weren’t in the editing room yet, but for me what resonates with me the most is the end.

He wanted to connect to, like what you said before, he wanted to connect this back and let you know, kind of remind America like this is still relevant today. This just happened a year ago and it’s thankfully brought up. It’s allow conversations to be brought up that are uncomfortable, but they should be had. And, you know, it goes from like a five-minute conversation to hopefully now this will be brought into a 10-minute conversation, and then it’s becoming greater, you know, and just as having a real talk about it.

I absolutely agree. What is up next for you?

I’m actually designing a biopic and it will be released on Netflix. It’s a true story about the Gilgo Beach murders. I’m excited about this process and working with the director and, you know, pushing the envelope and creating more of a conversation on that end.

So that’s exciting. I look forward to that. Marci, thank you so much for chatting with me this morning.

Thank you! Have a good day.

All right, you too.

BlacKkKlansman is currently in theaters from Focus Features. You can read my review of the film here and follow Marci Rodgers on Instagram @marcialagio.

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