Spike Lee‘s “BlacKkKlansman” has found its way into the hearts of audiences across the country. The film, which is set in the 1970s, is unfortunately just as relevant for today’s audience as it was in the period it visits.
To fully develop the world inhabited by Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan some forty years ago, Costume Designer Marci Rodgers did what all great costume designers do. She studied the period. Not just the clothes, but the people, and their way of life.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ms. Rodgers about her work on “BlacKkKlansman,” the effects the story had on her personally, and about her experiences working with the legendary director.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: Hi, Marci! It’s such a pleasure to talk to you today.
Marci Rodgers: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
KP: I was doing some preparation for this conversation and I was seeing that, well, first of all you’ve worked with Spike Lee before on “Chi-Raq,” and now on “BlacKkKlansman”—
KP: Let’s start at the beginning, though. How did you get into the world of designing costumes for film?
MR: I actually worked with Spike—I designed “She’s Gotta Have It” season 1 and 2 on Netflix. But, in short, how I fell into the world of costume is, I mean, some may not like it, but it’s God.
I was the Assistant Director for Admissions at Howard University School of Law for eight years prior to my career change into costume design. While I was there I met my mentor Reggie Ray, who took me under his wing. He was a Broadway costume designer. He designed “Holler if You Hear Me.” A little bit before his death, I was accepted into the University of Maryland College Park Masters Program in Theater. And that’s when I met my mentor Helen Huang…
I finished a three year program in two and a half years, and while in DC I was—obviously I was in grad school—but also I was designing professionally within the DC area. And the reason it was God is because [Reggie], which I didn’t know, he was gravely ill and he couldn’t make it to his premiere. So I ended up going. I guess it was my first year at grad school. And I had heard rumors that Spike was in the audience, but you never know. And if so, that was great, you know?
So there was an after [party] that was taking place and it just so happened that Mr. Lee was sitting like, literally, a table across from me. And he was just kind of there, taking in the room, and I worked up enough courage to go talk to him. And when I did talk to him, he took to me. I think he was more so intrigued by my courage, maybe a little? I shouldn’t say “I think,” I know he was. He asked me what was I doing and I told him my mentor had just designed the musical and he kept me on my toes in that conversation.
At that point, I had just met Ann Roth, unbeknownst to me six months later that I was going to be PA’ing (or production assisting) for her on two Broadway musicals that winter. And then I would say eight months later—trust me this is like a whirlwind but it’s really true! While meeting with Spike, he then tells me about Ruth Carter, who we all love and admire. He told me to reach out to her and I was nervous. I was like, “What? What am I supposed to do?” He told me, “Tell her I said to call her.” So I did, and she responded, thank God! She invited me down to Atlanta to work with her on “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” which was a movie she was doing. She was in prep for that. And to be honest, I didn’t really know much about film at that point…and I’m sure she knew that because I was still in grad school. So I was doing primarily research for the show and then I would say three months later she invited me to Chicago to work in the wardrobe department as a production assistant… I ended up becoming the shopper, actually. Untitled, because I wasn’t in the union, but I shopped for the show. For “Chi-Raq.” I then traveled back to grad school for my last year and right before I graduated, Mr. Lee reached out to me and offered me the position to design “She’s Gotta Have It” season 1. And that’s pretty much how I started.
KP: That’s a pretty amazing story. It’s interesting when you get to be connected to just the right people and you get to have these experiences at just the right moment. I love that you say that you feel God was guiding that. It really sounds like it, honestly.
MR: That’s why I have to start with God. Because when I tell the story, people have to understand there’s obviously a higher power that is directing my path and continues to direct my path because it happened…
I don’t know if you know but I’m featured in Variety and it’s funny because I would never have thought that they’d say my career was on turbo charge. As a side note, I was talking to my father and he’s like, “What’s faster? Turbo charge or super fast?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” (Laughs) But that’s literally how it happened.
KP: So amazing. When you got the call to work on “BlacKkKlansman,” how did that conversation go?
MR: Ha! Actually I was in Dominican Republic shooting a film. It was a London-based director. And Mr. Lee called me and asked me when I was gonna be available. It just happened I was going to be wrapping three weeks after. He said, “Okay, I’m gonna send you a script.” That was it.
And then maybe like an hour later, I received the script in an email from one of his students and I started to read and, as you can see, the beginning of the movie has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind” in it. So I actually took a step back and actually watched those two films just to understand why they were there. Particularly “Birth of a Nation.” So I think I watched that for like four hours… And I remember walking out of my apartment and I was talking to the line producer of the film I was working on and she asked me what was wrong. I actually watched that and “Malcolm X” back to back. So I was like, “I just watched ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Malcolm X’,” and she’s like, “Oh wow, let me stay out of your way.’
And then I watched “Gone With the Wind” and I let it settle. ‘Cause I had read the script, but I let everything settle in my mind. And then I came back to America, actually was in DC the night before the Charlottesville riots, and the next morning I woke up and turned on the news and David Duke was onscreen. The very end of [“BlacKkKlansman”] where you see David Duke talking to a small crowd of supporters and reporters? That same scene is what I woke up to three weeks after receiving the script.
KP: Wow. That’s one thing about this film is, even though it’s something that happened 40 years ago, it’s really terrible how relevant it still is today, and the fact that there still are things that tie into this movie that are happening now.
MR: Mhmm. Exactly.
KP: So how did you go into preparing for the film, having had these experiences of watching these films back to back to back and then seeing this unfolding on the news? What was your mental state as you were preparing to do “BlacKkKlansman?”
MR: I remember being in prep and actually watching—I’m speaking more so on the Organization side. I’ll talk more about the Black Student Union in a minute, but from the Organization side, I really did a lot of research where I watched a lot, and I mean a lot of videos. Just, like, understanding the thought process and the foundation of the Organization, if you will. And in doing so…I had to—and I’ve said this before because it’s the truth—I had to look at it from an artistic standpoint… To understand, to portray them how they actually were dressed. Keeping politics aside, keeping my emotions aside, to do the best I could to serve the artistry of the movie. So again, at any given day, I would say two weeks into prep, you could literally come into my office and I have a screen set up and I was watching YouTube videos of Ku Klux Klan rallies.
MR: And I was doing research. I actually found a catalog of Ku Klux Klan hoods and was like…I mean, I just started to dig and dig and dig and trying to understand and actually connect it back to “Birth of a Nation.” You know, how [they] dressed throughout the years.
But for the Black Student Union…I visited my alma mater, Howard University… And I sat there and I had hundreds of Essence Magazine books. I pulled Kwame Turé’s speech, because he’s actually an alumni of Howard… Photos of him as he was on tour, because when he left America and came back, that’s when he started his organization.
And I just kind of like looked at the nuances of African American culture at that time. I’m an 80s baby, so again, I just had to take this from an artistic standpoint and stay true to my research. And a lot of what I saw wasn’t—obviously I couldn’t go into the homes of those who lived in the 70s and, like, pull their pictures. So in Essence Magazines and even Jet Magazines I saw the advertisements as really what kept me… kind of gave me a little bit more insight into what [they] would have worn.
The colors, obviously, we know the 70s have a rich color to it, but how the colors are put together and I did do research on Angela Davis, Cathleen Cleaver. It’s funny ’cause I was actually able to meet Ms. Cleaver. We had a small talk back for a few of the cast members and myself. And it was interesting to hear her speak about it and then me knowing, I’d spent all that time doing research on how she dressed. And it was a bit of a uniform for her, when she dressed in all black. So that was pretty much my research. Sears Magazine. It’s funny ’cause Sears Magazine is like a gold mine… That was America!
KP: Yeah. Wow. So, when you’re doing the costumes, how much of it was created by you and how much of it was pulled together from vintage pieces?
MR: I would say for the main cast, 20% was made by me and 80%, well I guess it was for everyone. Like, if I had to do a pie chart, 80% was pulled from vintage shops here in New York and in LA. I did make a lot of Patrice’s costumes. I made Ron’s— I designed Ron’s denim walking suit when he walked into the Klan meeting. I actually designed marshmallow shoes for him because Spike was very adamant about him wearing marshmallow shoes… He, like, gave me this history lesson on marshmallow shoes. I was asked to actually design a pair for Ron.
What else did I make for him? I made some of his turtlenecks. They weren’t mock turtlenecks, they were actually turtlenecks, but they weren’t the thick ones we have now like the cable knit. I did design for Flip. I designed for Ivanhoe, I designed all of Felix’s wife. I designed all of her costumes.
KP: It’s such an interesting time period to design. I’m sure it was a fun costume collection to put together.
MR: Of course! Oh, god! I actually pulled most of those costumes. I hand selected a lot of that. Because I have a certain aesthetic, and I know Mr. Lee’s aesthetic, and I’m a student of his as well, even though he’s taken me under his wing as a film mentor, if you will. So like “Crooklyn,” that had a certain aesthetic itself. “Do the Right Thing,” those movies, “Malcolm X.”
I can give him praise, but then I also have to give my parents praise and my grandmother. My father is still stuck in the 70s, so, like, for me, I just tried to intuitively kind of embody what they would wear. And actually, in my wardrobe trailer I had a picture of my mom and dad in the 70s. So when I walked in, that’s what I saw every day. It could have been anybody but it just happened to be my mother and father. And my father was in a 70s suit and my mother was in a red dress. And to me, that reminded me of the love story of Patrice and Ron.
KP: Was there anything you slipped in? Like, just on the sly? Maybe a pair of your dad’s old glasses or anything like that?
MR: I actually did. But it came…it was a walking suit. It ended up on background. But it might have ended up…um, in the Bell’s Nightingale scene with Kwame Turé. He actually sent me a suit from the 70s. A couple of them, actually, that he was very proud of.
KP: I know we’re running short on time, but I have one last question. What do you feel you learned the most from working on “BlacKkKlansman” that you’ll take with you into future projects?
MR: One thing I learned from “BlacKkKlansman” was in every project you definitely— if you can, you have to see it from different lenses. For me, in particular, the idea of research, staying true to your research, because most of the feedback I’ve gotten is that the clothes look real. And it didn’t look costume-y if you will. And, granted while doing it I was just trying to make sure I made everybody look great and everything was on point.
And also, on the flip side of that, I would say just find the beauty in the story. Because obviously this is a story about hatred. But it’s also a story about courage, and how this man has decided to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. But now we’re able to have a conversation about it. You know? Like, long story short, I was in my Lyft yesterday, and it so happens that my Lyft driver saw the movie and he automatically wanted to talk to me about it. He was talking about the person he took. So it becomes infectious now. And in film, even though we’re creating worlds, I want people to take away not just the costume aspect of it, but what is the underlying meaning of it? And how can it help shape society? And I plan to do that going forward. And hopefully continuing to touch lives while doing so.
KP: Thank you so much. I really loved this movie. I think it’s something that everyone should see. It’s so important and so timely. Everything came together… and I love what you did and the things you contributed to making this look so authentic.
MR: Thank you, I appreciate it.
We would like to thank Marci Rodgers for her time, and to congratulate all of the cast and crew of “BlacKkKlansman” on the film’s success.