Clint Ramos Conjures Mid Century America in the New Film Respect
On the three-year anniversary of Aretha Franklin‘s passing, the Queen of Soul has officially been immortalized on the big screen. Respect, a star-studded biopic featuring Jennifer Hudson in its titular role, traces the arc of Franklin’s journey from the church choir of her girlhood to a bonafide musical legend. The film, directed by Liesl Tommy, boasts the likes of Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, and Tituss Burgess. Despite the hyper-recognizability of the film’s cast, Respect feels undisputedly like Franklin’s story, rather than a jaunt down Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. This achievement is due, in large part, to the work of Clint Ramos—the film’s costume designer. We spoke with Ramos about costume research, shaping looks for each character, and ensuring that Franklin’s story is given the R-E-S-P-E-C-T it deserves.
JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Hi, Clint! How are you?
CLINT RAMOS: I’m good. Are we doing the call with cameras off? Is that what we’re doing?
UKIOMOGBE: Cameras off, yeah. Unless you want them on.
RAMOS: Please. Stop the insanity of cameras on.
UKIOMOGBE: Right? It’s so lovely to talk to you. We spoke with you about the costuming for Slave Play a while ago, and we’re so happy to have you back. Tell me about your new coalition, Design Action.
RAMOS: So this is something that I really deeply care about. I fight for representation, diversity, and the inclusion of BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People of Color] in the American theater and film design field. I started this with a group of designers during the pandemic and we advocate for a radical shift in representation. We also advocate strongly for rising designers. It’s important that folks understand that diversity is not just one action, but a series of actions. As a gatekeeper, you can’t just open the door for someone. You need to follow through and set that person up for success.
UKIOMOGBE: That’s amazing, congratulations. Let’s transition to Respect. How did the project come to you?
RAMOS: I’ve been involved since the initial stages, informally. The director, Liesl Tommy, and I have been close collaborators for two decades now. So, I knew this movie was circling around the periphery. This was before Tracey [Scott Wilson] hopped on to write the script. I was in the very early stages of conception, and nothing formally happened until May 2019.
UKIOMOGBE: What type of costume design research did you do?
RAMOS: I literally looked at everything. I read autobiographies about her and the Civil Rights Movement. I looked at a lot of photos. Before Aretha signed with Columbia Records, there was very little photography of her. So, I did a lot of historical research that really helped me fill in the blanks. I went to Black churches in New Jersey, Baltimore, Atlanta, and Detroit. I viewed their archives from the ’40s-’70s and looked at what the parishioners wore, because none of that is available on the Internet. That was so valuable to me because there are a lot of church scenes in the film. Her father was a big rock star preacher and the advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. So, a lot of the information that you see in the film actually came from all of that photographic research.
UKIOMOGBE: Let’s get into each character!
Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin
“What can I tell you about Jennifer Hudson? The movie was written for her. Aretha selected Jennifer to play her, so I had a head start. She was already doing her own prep work months before we even started. We had plenty of meetings and she was very committed to the character. I asked her, ‘How far are you willing to go?’ And she was like, ‘As far as you want.’ So I knew we were going to do something amazing and glamorous. We did about 82 looks for her and what you see on screen is about 53. We did a bunch of gowns and reinterpreted her first photoshoot with Columbia, the Madison Square Garden concert, the European tour, the Amazing Grace concert. Then for the parts of the movie where we didn’t have photographic research, I just used design logic and spent time figuring out what she would’ve worn. Jennifer was unbelievably collaborative and ego-less. It’s always great when you’re working with someone that talented.”
Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington
“I love Mary. She’s a supporting role, so I didn’t have a lot of prep time with her. We had about five fittings and she would ask questions. Her inquisitiveness about the character really showed me that, not only is she an amazing musician, but also a great actor. It comes naturally to her, the preparation. Mary was fascinated by Dinah Washington and there was something aspirational about Dinah that spoke to me. She was the queen, so she needed to wrap herself in her success. The clothes needed to be a little bit over the top. Her looks are very elevated. She has all this metallic gold because, for her, it was always better to be overdressed than underdressed. She understood the assignment, you know?”
Forest Whitaker as C.L. Franklin
“A consummate professional. A lot of people don’t know that Forest was an opera singer. When he started rehearsal for the preaching scenes, I was like ‘Wait a minute. What’s going on?’ That was literally his training. But anyway, we first see him in the late ‘40s and watch him through the ‘70s. He goes through decades of styles. He was a classic dresser unlike any other character in the film. He wears a lot of brown, grey, and navy. All the suits were completely bespoke. He was a preacher, so their family grew up upper-middle class. They had money. People see this Black diva biopic and assume that it’s a ‘rags to riches’ story. But no. I found a classic silhouette and tweaked it according to the periods. His style was very dignified and upright.”
Marlon Wayans as Ted White
“Ted White was Aretha’s first husband. His style also includes marvelous suits, but he was a pimp. So, he’s flashy and shiny. Every sequence included a sheen. We used sharkskin wools, cashmere, and satins. He’s always in a turtleneck. There’s something very suave about him and he’s impeccably dressed. His wardrobe was colorful. We were all over the place— he wears a gold suit when they go down to Alabama for a show. Marlon was fun to style. He has swagger. If you’re in a bad mood, you just talk to Marlon. He was so collaborative, and it was great seeing him in this type of serious role. He’s super amazing.”
Tituss Burgess as Reverend Dr. James Cleveland
“Reverend James Cleveland was a close family friend and a close advisor to Aretha. He’s a fun character because we see him in his formative, churchy teen years in the ‘50s, and then we see him in the end in the ‘70s. He bookends the film. He wears a lot of leisure suits, polyester, and disco shirts. You know, my background is in theater and Tituss also comes from the theater, so we spoke the same language. There was trust. He was a fun character because he’s a preacher, but there’s a little glint in his eye.”