MARCI RODGERS, Spike Lee's Designer
Blackkklansman costume designer MARCI RODGERs is on the career ride of a lifetime—and she’s only just beginning.
TEXT BY TEDDY TINSON for C.F.D.A.
This is a bit of a full-circle moment for Rodgers. The Chicago native’s first film project was Chi-Raq, where she assisted Spike Lee’s longtime creative collaborator Ruth E. Carter (aka the designer behind Marvel’s Black Panther).
In addition to Blackkklansman, Rodgers recently wrapped two equally exciting and socially relevant projects: Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird, its screenplay by Academy Award Winner Tarell Alvin McCraney (Moonlight); and the second season of Spike Lee’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It.
We spoke to Rodgers about lessons learned from her design mentors—Broadway’s Paul Tazewell (Hamilton), and Ann Roth (Book of Mormon), and her time as a student at Howard University, Central Saint Martins, and University of Maryland, as well as her upcoming projects [hint: Rodgers is probably very good at playing poker].
Hi Marci. Congratulations on the success of Blackkklansman. I must say, I want Ron Stallworth’s [played by John David Washington] entire wardrobe—with the exception of the police uniform, of course!
Thank you, that means a lot.
Were there any costume pieces the actors felt help better inform, shape or develop their characters?
John David had a favorite coat — a brown leather coat with shearling collar — that he really loved. Generally, when he put on the clothes, when he would walk onto set, you could not only see, but also feel his transformation into Ron Stallworth. That ‘clothing-to-character’ transformation also happened with Corey Hawkins as Kwame Ture [née Stokely Carmichael]. Corey deﬁnitely embodied the spirit of Kwame.
In terms of historical political activists, we have Kwame Ture on one end of the ﬁlm, and the real Mr. Harry Belafonte as the ﬁlm’s bookend. Did you costume him?
Sadly not. He came to set in his own ﬁnery. I did, however, costume his daughter who stands behind him in the ﬁlm. That scene was ﬁlmed on the very last day, and everyone came to set in black tie to honor Mr. Belafonte. It was incredible.
What advice do you have for aspiring costume designers or your preferred title, “visual historians”?
First and foremost, don’t ever stop believing in yourself. I know that sounds cliché but people who know me closely will tell you that I spoke [my career as a costume designer] into existence.
Really? How so?
I read The Alchemist [by Paulo Coelho] while studying at Central Saint Martins and it changed my life. I manifested what I wanted internally, which brought me to my ﬁrst mentor, the late Reggie Ray [former Howard University design professor and Helen Hayes Theatre Award recipient], who introduced me to Paul Tazewell.
Broadway’s Paul Tazewell, Tony Award winner for Broadway’s Hamilton. How’d you get your big break?
I met many of my design mentors within a six to eight-month period. Previously, I’d worked as an assistant director of admissions at a law school. I visited University of Maryland and met another mentor, Helen Huang, who guided me through the Costume Design MFA program. Everyone was very patient with me.
Tell me about living in NYC, coming from Chicago.
I live in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, but sometimes I go to Harlem on the weekends just to get a taste of the last piece of what they call “our Harlem.” Just sitting there talking to Dapper Dan is so enriching.
Indeed! What a life Dapper Dan has led—I’m thrilled for his resurgence.
While on the subject, what contemporary inﬂuences, if any, did you imbue in the ﬁlm? The Blackkklansmancostumes feel evocative of the times, but also very fresh and current.
Thanks. For me, it was really all about authenticity. During the time of shooting, I became engulfed with my research. Whenever I did come up for air, I noticed a lot of the fast-fashion brands like Zara churning out vintage-inspired styles. Some the collections during the last New York Fashion Week, too, were Seventies-inspired, like Pyer Moss—I love Kerby!
Tell me about the Nike pullover—much like the ﬁlm’s subject matter, it seems especially timely.
Spike has a years-long relationship with Nike. He only requested I use the Cortez sneakers, but I found the sweater online. I showed it to Spike and he was like, “Get it.” That still could really be it’s own Nike campaign.
Slightly shifting gears a bit, there’s a lot of cultural tension in the air, particularly as it relates to the style and beauty industries. Given your very unique experience of working with many of the most prominent African American creative professionals — have you been protected from some of those tensions?
Unsurprisingly, not entirely. I had a bit of a hard time at University of Maryland. My peers had already studied costuming, studied theatre, and to some of the other students, I just walked in. I knew I was there because of a greater divine spirit, because of God.
I did have a few of these issues while working as a costume shopper with a few designers — not the designers, their assistants! They would always question existence, wonder why I was around. There was one woman in particular putting me through the paces, adding things to my plate simply to see if I could keep up. I could! I’m very discerning, I understand people’s energy—so I try to ﬁnd positivity in everything. I have the mantra: I’m representing my mentor now, it’s not about me.
Thank you for sharing! Can you share a bit about your forthcoming project High Flying Bird and your experience working with Steven Soderbergh?
Soderbergh is amazing! And with Spike, we just wrapped the second season of She’s Gotta Have It. We shot in Martha’a Vineyard and Puerto Rico. Spike told me early on he wanted a lot of color. He kept saying, “Brooklyn is color!” [laughs]
Lots of [NY Knicks] orange and blue, I’d imagine! Anything else you can share about your other upcoming projects?
Hmm…it’s a biopic that took place on Long Island. That’s all I can say for now. [laughs]
Thank you very much for the chat…maybe our paths will cross in the near future.
I manifest our paths WILL cross!
BLACKKKLANSMAN PHOTOS BY DAVID LEE/FOCUS FEATURES