Editor’s note: Today is the debut of The Undefeated, a new ESPN website that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture. In an introductory letter, Kevin Merida, its editor-in-chief, says the site won’t shrink from covering challenging subjects with a mix of original reporting, innovative storytelling, provocative commentary, must-see video, narratives and investigations. At FiveThirtyEight, we’re so excited at having a new sibling that we’ll be running several of The Undefeated’s articles on our site this week — including the one that follows here — and we have big plans for partnerships in the future.
Movie theaters had air conditioning. So when those dry, 110-degree Clovis summers hit, that’s where Nate Moore and his three siblings would be. At the movies. Baby brother Nate has a brother eight years his senior plus two sisters. Single mom Barbara was hard at work providing.
The kids needed to stay out of trouble, and consuming films was an escape from the heat and from reality. Clovis, after all, isn’t glitzy. It’s a small agricultural town in The San Joaquin Valley’s Fresno County, and it’s known for orange and peach fields. Moore’s high school was literally in the middle of an orchard. But the cineplex was within walking distance of home. “Honestly,” he says with a chuckle, “we grew up [with] movies…being our babysitter.”
A young Moore cringed through the original ‘79 Alien and peeked at ‘89’s Pet Sematary through 7-year-old fingers as he watched on VHS. He cheered during ‘85’s The Goonies when he saw it at the movie house with his family, and was a fan of angsty teen ‘80s films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. And Moore was a fanatic for Indiana Jones movies, and the original Star Wars trilogy. “That was the cool way to hang out with your friends, but not roast alive,” he says. “We’d sneak in, do triple features…movie hop, see everything. [Or] we’d stay home and watch movies on our VCR.”
And when the VCR was tapped, Nate and his brother walked three miles in the Clovis sun to a comic book store to raid the 25-cent bin. Then he’d sit in his room, thumbing through obscure comics and falling in love with characters who looked like they could have been in his own family — The Falcon, Luke Cage and the Black Panther. The two worlds never quite seemed to meet in a larger way when Moore was a kid. The specific comic characters he obsessed over were never on the big screen.
That’s why Moore’s childhood is paramount. His childhood is why we’re seeing black superheroes on the big screen.
At long last.
Nate Moore, 37, is the lone African-American producer in the film division at Marvel Studios.1
By now, you — along with the others who helped it collect more than $940 million, an audience that is pushing it to become 2016’s “first billion dollar earner worldwide” — have surely seen Captain America: Civil War and watched in amazement at how many black people are in the film. How did Moore figure out how to make a superhero film with black folks that appeals to a mass market? Captain America: Civil War is far more diverse than any other movie to come from this franchise — and that’s Moore’s handiwork. It’s funny —considering Moore had no idea who he wanted to be in Hollywood when he landed in L.A. He just knew he wanted in.
In college, he took film classes and he learned the mechanics of filmmaking. He began an internship at Columbia Pictures during his sophomore year, a relationship that continued throughout his collegiate years. Columbia hired Moore, who was a Jackie Robinson Foundation scholar at UCLA, right out of school to work as an assistant in the development department after he graduated with a degree in communications in 2000.
Nate worked as a production assistant on Sam Raimi’s 2004 Spider-Man 2 and on that job, he learned some absolute truths about himself. “I don’t have the talent to write,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve tried writing screenplays and they’re not good. I didn’t really have the eye to direct. But I loved being around storytellers and I love problem-solving. My brain loves puzzles. Doing a film is like putting together a really complicated puzzle.” He enjoyed being plugged into the process of filmmaking. It sparked a notion that his own power would be in getting stories told.
The kinds of stories he never saw on the big screen as a kid.
Moore came to Marvel just over six years ago from Exclusive Media, where his team worked to finance their films by selling to international territories. He’s also an alum of Participant Media, which uses films to increase awareness of social issues. Those experiences — and his love of comics — made him a great fit for Marvel, which in 2009 was in the middle of making what would become the massively successful Iron Man 2. Marvel Studios’ president, Kevin Feige, was looking to expand the producing arm of the company because it was clear from the early success of 2008’s Iron Man meant more were going to get made. Moore came on to run Marvel’s writer’s program, which had just gotten off the ground. The idea was for in-house staff writers to take stabs at little-known characters. At the time, Feige realized that the company was building toward The Avengers, and there was a need for characters outside of that realm.
“Even back then,” Moore said, “Kevin realized, ‘Oh, we have to diversify what we’re doing. It’s not just going to be Iron Man 7 and Captain America 5. We have to figure out ways to launch these other characters who have compelling stories in their own right, but maybe just aren’t as well-known to the layperson.’”
One of the projects Moore began developing early on in the writer’s program was the Black Panther film, a personal and professional victory of his. In 2014, Marvel announced it’d be producing a stand-alone Black Panther film — an announcement met with much fanfare and celebration.
With Ryan Coogler as director. And a mostly black cast.
From Marvel. With Marvel money. And Marvel expectations.
Surely, you jest.
Of course Moore and everyone else will have to wait another two years to see just how ripe movie-going audiences are for such a movie — the Black Panther film seems like it’s going to be unapologetically black. And that representation is all anyone can talk about, especially after last week’s announcements that Michael B. Jordan has been cast in the forthcoming film (and Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is reportedly in talks for a role too). #BlackPantherSoLIT dominated Twitter over the weekend.
The people are ready.
The film is being co-written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, a black writer who wrote a few episodes for FX’s recent and popular The People v. O.J. Simpson (and who came out of that Marvel writers’ program years ago). And it’s shooting in places where black people live. “We’ll do our stage work in Atlanta,” Moore said. “And we’re definitely investigating shooting in Africa … both Marvel and Ryan feel that would be really good for the movie. We just haven’t drilled down on it yet.” Also: The expected release date for the Black Panther film is 2018, in the thick of Black History Month.
And the reception of Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther has been inspiring. The character (which debuted in a 1966 issue of “Fantastic Four”) was introduced in Captain America: Civil War and his presence is cinematic jolt. Viewers at a Washington D.C. screening screamed with delight as a man in an all-black costume quite literally jumps into a scene, hell-bent on destroying his enemy. The character takes Chris Evans’ Captain America by surprise — who is this black man physically challenging his friend Bucky Barnes? When all of the men are captured by law enforcement, Black Panther pulls his mask off, revealing himself as T’Challa of the African nation Wakanda, son of King T’Chaka, who was slain in a terrorist bombing. He believes Barnes committed the crime. It’s a visually breathtaking moment as the camera angles from the confused faces of Chris Evans’ Captain America and Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. It’s a prideful moment for fans who never see themselves represented in films like this.
“When I got the movie, that [representation] was the first thing I thought about,” Boseman said in an interview with USA Today. “That’s pretty dope.”Injecting prominent black characters into the Marvel stratosphere wasn’t as challenging as Moore thought it might be. “But,” he said, “it was … interesting. I remember specifically for The Falcon, the first time I met with [Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely], who also wrote 2011’s ‘Captain America: The First Avenger,’ we were just spit-balling ideas, and the first thing I said was, ‘Well, we have to introduce The Falcon, because as a kid, that was a character that I remember loving.’ And they were like, ‘Oh? Do people like The Falcon?’”
Moore pauses for a few beats before recounting his reply: “…People love The Falcon.” His voice in the room — and perspective and background — was much needed. When they began developing 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier story, the team knew they’d be introducing The Falcon, the superhero who flies with the aid of mechanical wings and in comic books has limited telepathic and empathic control over birds. Almost instantly, Mackie was the only name they wanted for the role; Moore loved him in the 2006 drama Half Nelson.
“We all met with him. Marvel being so secretive, we couldn’t tell Mackie what the role was. I think he thought it was Black Panther, because Black Panther is a little bit more of a popular character. But we wanted somebody in The Falcon who could feel like a peer to Captain America and not like a subordinate,” Moore said. “We didn’t want a Robin to Captain America. We wanted a partner and Mackie has such a weight to him. He’s so charming. You meet him for three seconds and you realize this guy can do anything.” In a 2014 interview with The Daily Post, Mackie said, “When I heard I got the role, I broke down in tears. Being The Falcon is monumental.”
Then came picking the right time for Black Panther’s debut. When the Marvel team was developing Civil War, there was a need for a third-party perspective — they didn’t want to rely on one of the Avengers to come through in this film. They wanted … a moment. “I remember texting Kevin and going, ‘I think this is our opportunity to do Panther,’” Moore says. “It was going to be harder to do that as a stand-alone movie right off the bat. But if we could launch him within the framework of a larger story, maybe there’s a chance.”
Marvel got its moment — and then some. Seeing both The Falcon and The Black Panther fight and interact on the big screen alongside long-loved characters like Iron Man and Captain America is jaw-dropping. Each time Boseman’s character graces the scene, it feels like a tide-changing occasion — and his casting was almost as seamless. The actor, who had transformed into the role of James Brown for the biopic Get On Up, was in the middle of that film’s press tour, when his manager told him Marvel wanted to get on the phone with him. “So he stepped out of the Get On Up screening in Switzerland, and Kevin says, ‘Hey Chadwick. It’s Kevin Feige, here. We wanted to know if you wanted to be the Black Panther.’”
Moore laughs at the memory, and says what made the moment even funnier is that no one on the Marvel team had seen Boseman as Brown. But they’d all seen him in 42, in which he portrayed baseball legend Jackie Robinson. The actor had wowed them all with his take on the athlete who changed the course of sports, and of American, history.
Near the tail end of 2015, director Coogler’s stock was rising. The young filmmaker — he turns 30 this month — had convinced Sylvester Stallone to reboot the Rocky franchise with Creed. Early screenings of the film were favorable, and Coogler, who had already blown up with his 2013 directorial debut, Fruitvale Station (Michael B. Jordan starred in both films), was anointed the director to watch.
Coogler’s Hollywood coronation is notable. He’s a black man from Oakland, Calif., who in his first two films has managed to tell critically acclaimed authentic black stories and sell them to a wide cross-section of viewers. Smartly, Marvel snagged Coogler up to direct the forthcoming Black Panther.
“We’re fortunate to have such an esteemed filmmaker join the Marvel family,” said Feige in a statement earlier this year. “The talents Ryan showcased in his first two films easily made him our top choice to direct Black Panther.”
And Coogler, according to Moore, came out the gate swinging. “One of his questions to Kevin was, ‘You realize that this movie is going to be predominantly a black cast?’ And Kevin goes —” Moore transitions here into a dramatic matter-of-fact delivery — “‘Yeah, obviously. That’s why we’re doing it.’”
A stand-alone Black Panther picture is a victory for diversity, to be sure. But now, the pressure has sunk in. Marvel films cost a pretty penny to produce: The budget for 2008’s Iron Man was $140 million, it’s 2010 sequel cost $200 million to make and 2013’s Iron Man 3 cost another $200 million. Iron Man 3 alone earned more than $1 billion at the box office — a big number for a big film. There’s been no word on the financials of the Black Panther film, but most of Marvel’s introduction films come with a budget of around $140 million.
The real work, beyond going into actual production for this film, is starting.
How do you get butts in international seats? How do you push past a long-held hypothesis that predominately black films — those with modest budgets, even — don’t do well in key markets both domestically and overseas? How do you rise to the challenge that black films don’t do well by the tent-pole film standards mentioned above? How then, do you make a film with Marvel money, armed with the knowledge that it may not have the same return as other big-budget comic book films?
“I mean look, personally, yes,” Moore said, “there’s a pressure on the movie in that there’s an expectation of what traditionally hasn’t worked or maybe hasn’t worked to the level of other movies. But I know Kevin would echo this: We believe the Marvel brand will transcend any trepidation. People never really believe this, but I promise you it is true: All of our movies we have a ton of trepidation about because they are so big. When we made Guardians of the Galaxy, there was huge trepidation because it’s a space franchise with a raccoon and a tree.”
Moore remembers shaking his head in amazement when a visual effects supervisor on another film sought out the head of post-production to thank Moore’s team. He’d just taken his first look at Captain America: Winter Soldier and shared that his son “finally has a hero that he can look at and see himself in” — in reference to The Falcon. This comment shored up Moore’s mission. It was the sentiment he’d been hoping for.
“Giving kids heroes reflective of their experiences is important. And treating those heroes with the same level of respect to story as the Captain Americas and the Iron Men of the world, is really important,” Moore said. “Giving people of all ethnicities and all races images of other ethnicities and races that are positive and heroic moves the needle.” But this moment is bigger than financial gain. It’s worth the work and creativity and risk to bring characters to life who are reflective of the world in its entirety. Perhaps it’s also about creating a world that includes people who look like the kid growing up in Central California — or in the real and actual Anytown, USA. So that when that little kid gets lost in the world of film — in that cool cineplex on a hot summer day, or home on a streaming service — he or she sees people who look like them.
“Audiences are more progressive than we give them credit for,” Moore said. “You look at Fast and Furious [series] and no one’s like, ‘Um, hold on a second! There are a lot of minorities in there!’ Nobody cares. They came for the cars. Audiences want to see good movies and they want to be excited about going to the theater and with the success of our films — and knock on wood we can keep it going. There’s a trust that we’re going to try to give them a really cool story and something they haven’t seen before.”
Nate Moore, that Clovis kid who peeked through his hands at the scary parts and read 25-cent comics with this brother, stops for a few thoughtful moments. He speaks again, thinking about the very specific, but very under wraps Black Panther story his team plans on telling. “And I promise you, Black Panther? You have not seen before.”
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Can’t Be Defeated: How Shaun Livingston came back from the brink of career oblivion and became an NBA champion, by Marc J. Spears
The Waco Horror: What does it mean to share a name with the victim of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history? By Jesse Washington