Lee Daniel’s The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who becomes a butler in the White House serving eight presidents as history unfolds through the civil right movements, Vietnam, and other significant moments in history. Daniels enlisted costume designer Ruth Carter to help tell this story with as much visual authenticity as possible. Carter has received two Academy Award nominations, for her work on Amistad (1997) and in Malcolm X (1992).
The script for The Butler won Carter over entirely. Everything about the presentation of the story spoke to her. “I felt the way the script showed both what was happening in the White House over the years and what was happening on the streets was very unconventional,” she explained. “I hadn’t really seen a film that showed the intimacy of the White House as well as the intimacy of the civil rights movement.”
Carter researched the various eras extensively including the civil rights movement and found herself transported into the events in the film through the images she discovered. This was essential to her vision, to her ability to costume the characters as authentically as possible.
“I loved how I could find images that displayed the dichotomy of how [the script] was telling the two stories,” she said. “I would find a picture of Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon having a big laugh, and they’re in their double breasted 1950s-looking suit, their legs crossed, sitting back and having this big belly laugh. And at the same time, I would see a picture of civil rights activists during the same era with blood on their faces, feeling their teeth to see if they’ve lost a tooth, and their clothes are disheveled. I thought, ‘It’s right here in front of us.’ The writer did a brilliant job of voicing what both eyes of the social atmosphere were going through.”
It was clear from the beginning that dressing such a large production on a low budget and with limited time would be a challenge. “It was a real journey on The Butler; it was a lot to do… We may have started our day in the 1950s and after lunch, it’s 1965,” Carter said. “So our challenge was to make sure each scene had its integrity and was entirely authentic even though we were shooting several in the course of one day.”
One advantage to Carter’s momentous task was the costume designer’s collaboration with Daniels. It was a working relationship that was as friendly as it was wide open for the sharing of ideas and aesthetics. “I enjoyed working with him so much,” she recalled. “There were many laughs between us. The collaboration was ideal – just like the film itself – which was the kind of unique once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Carter that she enthusiastically threw herself into. “If you ever get a project or an assignment that’s a great challenge for you, that you’re up for, it feels like this is going to be the one – I’m going to give this everything I’ve got.”