On Spike Lee’s Golden Globe-nominated BlacKkKlansman, Marci Rodgers was presented with the unusual task of costuming the Ku Klux Klan. Premiering at Cannes, where Lee won the Grand Jury Prize, the director’s latest tells the true story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in the Colorado Springs bureau who, in astonishing fashion, managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, in preparing to tell this story, Rodgers hit the books, educating herself on the fashions of the ‘70s, on Stallworth’s sartorial preferences, and what the KKK actually wore. “Early on in prep, I looked at a lot of documentaries on the organization, and in my research online, I was able to find a handbook on all of the Klan’s robes and what they meant,” Rodgers says. “I showed that information to Spike and the production designer, and I think it opened up even more of a creative world for us.”
Like the rest of the film’s department heads, the costume designer couldn’t help but be triggered by the sight of these robes—and yet she “still wanted to be an artist, and make sure [the look] was depicted correctly.” One of Lee’s protégés, Rodgers got her big break as a costume designer on the director’s Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It, inspired by his own 1986 film. Under the auteur, she has learned a number of lessons, one of them being how to bring intention to every visual choice she makes. “Studying pictures of David Duke when he was in his robe as a Grand Wizard, or even of the wizards under him, I would always refer back to the book. Because there would come a day where Spike would be like, ‘Why is David wearing blue?’” Rodgers reflects. “And I could say, ‘Well, this is why.’”
What were the first steps you took, contemplating your role on BlacKkKlansman?
When Spike gave me a call and said that he had a script for me to read, I read it and I immediately took a step back, and went to watch Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, just because those two films play a part in our film. At that point, I didn’t necessarily marry myself to the idea of the costumes being connected to those films, but just learned more and more about that side of the story, meaning the organization. Then, I started to dig deeper into the ‘70s costumes, as it related to Ron Stallworth and the Black Student Union, doing preliminary research to get a feel of the era. Then, we went into pre-production, and I had a meeting with Spike, and I had a huge binder where I had collected research. I went to my alma mater, Howard University, and went through 50 or 70 magazines and books. Then I also visited the Library of Congress and learned a little more about the organization, as a whole.
Were there key points that were crucial to Spike, when it came to the film’s costumes? What did you discuss early on?
There were a few. For Ron Stallworth, in particular, there was a pair of [Nike] Cortezes that Mr. Lee wanted him to wear. So, that was very specific. I was able to get those, and then also, he wanted Ron to wear marshmallow shoes, which I don’t think actually exist now. But I made a pair of marshmallow shoes for John David [Washington] to wear in the scene. He really wasn’t too big on Ron Stallworth wearing a lot of jewelry, even though when I spoke to Mr. Stallworth, he said when he would go in and out of those worlds, when he was a detective, he would wear certain jewelry pieces that made him feel “cool.” Other than that, Mr. Lee went through my research and gave me some feedback. For Ron Stallworth, when he’s coming into the initiation scene—the banquet where he has on the denim—I said to Spike, “I think it would be cool if he had on a two-piece denim walking suit, versus a suit. We still want him to have on a ‘uniform,’ but let’s juxtapose him against the organization.’” And that costume actually became very important.
What is the process of having designer items like marshmallow shoes made when they’re hard to find in the real world?
For Ron Stallworth, I worked with a company in Taiwan. I sent them research, the shoe that I wanted to have made for him, and they made it pretty much to a tee. They were pretty fast and efficient.
In firsthand interaction with Ron Stallworth, what did you observe about him, as a person?
Two things, really: Courage and strength. For him to have stepped out so much on faith and even his own confidence, to infiltrate the KKK… that was something that, with John David, I wanted to be presented through the screen. Confidence in his wardrobe, in his presence. I think having a presence is very important for any character, not just [Ron]. It was important for all of them: Patrice [Dumas], Odetta, Kwame Ture, Flip. Just making sure that everything was memorable.
What qualities in ‘70s fashion were you trying to emulate with your looks?
During that time in the ‘70s, that was a very rich palette, in general. Very earthy tones, very rich. Doing my research, I looked through Ebony magazines and Essence magazines to see what they were actually wearing during that timeframe—even Soul Train, because collectively, it was still around the same age group. So for the Student Union, that was very important to me, to keep that soul—the soul sister, soul brother—underlying. On the flip side of that, you had the Black Panther Party, which was happening during the same time, which is where Patrice’s costume was inspired by Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver.
The primary characters of BlacKkKlansman wear a fair amount of jewelry of various sorts. Were you working with a specific designer in getting all those pieces made?
No, actually. This sounds crazy, but a lot of what Ron wore, I picked out myself. If it wasn’t vintage, it was something I saw—like, a charm or a shell that I thought would be cool—at like a Michaels craft store. Then, I picked up an 18-inch suede necklace with a clasp that went with his palette. A lot of the jewelry Patrice wore was vintage, and the pick that Ron gives her was something that Spike came to set with.
Could you elaborate on the approach you took with the Black Panther outfits? I’d heard that you provided them with some added texture, so that they would pop on screen.
With Patrice, every time you saw her, she had on black. So I definitely vowed, throughout the arc of her costumes, for them not just to be flat black, but to have different textures—suede against leather, polyester knit against suede, so that there could be a dimension there. There was a young man who was onstage with Patrice and Odetta when Kwame Ture was speaking, and he had on an army fatigue jacket, because that’s what they wore during that time—and the berets.
What has it been like having Spike Lee as your mentor and supporter, on BlacKkKlansman and other projects?
In short, I would say it’s definitely been a blessing. Mr. Lee has definitely taught me a lot about filmmaking, about being confident as a young artist in the industry. Just to be around him—particularly on Klansman, but even for She’s Gotta Have It or any project we’ve worked on—it’s very interesting to see how he handles his process. Even he does research. He’s constantly, always learning something, and I think that’s very important. He might not know that, that I paid that much attention, but he’s very intriguing because you have a mentor who wants to stay up on the times, not getting involved in just one project and shutting everything out.