The first Afro-Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales, made his big screen debut last year in the animated hit Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
Like Morales, the film's co-director, Peter Ramsey, is making history as the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award in the animated feature category.
Marvel Comics fans grew up following the original Spider-Man character, Peter Parker. So when it came to introducing a new version of the character, the first non-white Spider-Man, Ramsey says it was crucial for the film's creators to get it right.
"We wanted to put our best foot forward and create something that people would be able to relate to and love," the director says in an interview with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
The critical response to Into the Spider-Verse has been "surreal," Ramsey says. But the director says he didn't get into the superhero genre to sweep awards season.
"I don't think anybody goes into a Spider-Man movie thinking you're going to win an Oscar," he says.
Instead, he's turned to the genre as a way to speak to minority communities. Superhero movies are a perfect vehicle for that conversation, says Ramsey, because superhero characters are avatars for accessing larger cultural ideas that audiences can relate to.
"It means a lot for young black and Latino kids to see themselves up on screen in these iconic, heroic, mythic stories," he says. "It's a need being fulfilled."
"This genre allows people to sort of project themselves onto these heroic figures who struggle with their own difficulties and own insecurities," the director says. People of color, in particular, he says, "want to be part of the story, want to be part of the myth. If you can't be part of a myth like that, then what do you have in a culture?"
The emotional response to Into the Spider-Verse — particularly from minority communities and minority children — was more than he could have hoped for.
"What it seems to mean is greater than I think any of us really anticipated," he says. "We really do get e-mails and texts and letters and people saying, 'I saw this with my child and he turned to me or she turned to me and said, 'That looks like me on screen' or 'they're speaking Spanish at home' or 'I could be him.' "
Even before the film's success, Ramsey was part of a growing community of minority filmmakers reshaping Hollywood and its longtime struggle with diversity — a struggle that historically, has been most visible on Oscars night.
Ramsey sees a growing tide of greater representation that is injecting new life into old narratives. That's been the case in recent box-office success stories, like last year's animated feature winner Coco, a celebration of Mexico's Day of the Dead holiday co-directed by Mexican-American Adrian Molina. The same is true of director Ryan Coogler's work to bring Afrofuturism to the mainstream with Marvel's Black Panther, which is also up for an Oscar on Sunday.
"There's so many exciting black creators and creators of color and all genders, and the realization that this kind of diversity really does give rise to more interesting movies," he says. "It just feels like it's going to help unlock a key, creatively, for a lot of people in a lot of different ways that we don't even realize yet."
NPR's Sophia Boyd produced this story for broadcast.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Spider-Man takes on his biggest challenge tonight - the Academy Awards. "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" is 1 of 5 movies nominated for animated feature film. In this latest version of the web-slinger, there are multiple Spideys (ph) trying to save the day, including the lead character Miles Morales. But before Miles puts on the mask, he's just an ordinary Afro-Latino teen from Brooklyn, whose dad happens to be a police officer.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE")
BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) I love you, Miles.
SHAMEIK MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Yeah, I know, dad.
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) You got to say I love you back.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Dad, are you serious?
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) I want to hear it.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) You want to hear me say it.
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) I love you, Dad.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) You're dropping me off...
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) I love you...
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) ...At a school.
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) ...Dad.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Look at this place.
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) Dad, I love you.
MOORE: (As Miles Morales) Dad, I love you.
HENRY: (As Jefferson Davis) That's a copy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In advance of the big night, we wanted to talk with Peter Ramsey. He co-directed "Into The Spider-Verse." And he joins me now from NPR West. Welcome and congratulations.
PETER RAMSEY: Thanks so much - great to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does it feel?
RAMSEY: That's a big one. It's kind of surreal. The emotional level of the response is what's kind of really taken us all aback. We thought it might mean something to people. But what it seems to mean is greater than, I think, any of us really anticipated. And, you know, I don't think anybody goes into a Spider-Man movie thinking you're going to win an Oscar.
RAMSEY: So that that whole thing is like, whoa, OK. Here we are.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say it's meaningful to people, tell me a little bit about some of the response that you've gotten. What have people been telling you about why it is so meaningful to them?
RAMSEY: First and foremost, you know, we're doing a movie that has the first Spider-Man who is not white, you know?
RAMSEY: And Peter Parker's a beloved character that everybody's known for, really, a couple of generations now. And introducing this new version of the character in Miles Morales, it's what we hoped. And it's far more than we hoped. It's - you know, you really - we really do get emails and texts and letters and people saying, you know, my - I saw this with my child. And he turned to me or she turned to me and said, that looks like me on screen, or, they're speaking Spanish at home, or, I could be him. And it sounds like a - you know, the cliche of what representation means. But, you know, it's like hearing the word love and then feeling love to actually experience people's response to it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This movie has been called as important as "Black Panther." Why do you think superhero movies are at the forefront of representation right now?
RAMSEY: I think they're kind of our new version of a national myth. You know, they encapsulate a lot of things - heroism, responsibility, bravery, sacrifice. A lot of things that other cultures have handed down through the ages and in mythic stories. And I think it's got a lot to do with where the superhero kind of sits in our national consciousness. And, you know, people of color, you know, they want to be part of the story, want to be part of the myth. If you can't be part of a myth like that, then what do you have in a culture?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You are the first African-American to be nominated in this category - talking about breaking barriers. How does that feel?
RAMSEY: You know, you never think of yourself as any kind of, like, pioneer or barrier-breaker. At least I don't - not consciously - because I'm just trying to do the best job that I can. And, you know, I'm surrounded by incredible collaborators - my co-directors Rodney Rothman and Bob Persichetti, who's is a genius. They, just like me, I think, our whole careers, have just wanted to get it right and wanted to push the boundaries a little further. So in that way, I don't think about it.
But I know good and well - yeah, it does mean something. And my achievement in being here is backed up by a lot of other people who really did struggle and laid a lot of tracks. So there's a long legacy of black animators and professionals - you know, Floyd Norman, Ron Husband, Frank Braxton. Even friends of mine still in the business - Bruce Smith and Marlon West - who are pioneers in their own way have like, you know, laid this ground so that I could be here. And I'm just grateful - grateful and lucky.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Coco" won last year for best animated film. That movie had a Latino cast. And now "Into The Spider-Verse" could win this year. "Black Panther" is also nominated. Spike Lee is also up for a long overdue director Oscar. Are we finally seeing change in the film industry?
RAMSEY: It sure does feel like it. This past couple of years it really has felt like the winds are shifting a bit, that the old myths about, well, these films don't travel internationally or the audience is limited or they're a niche product somehow - I think all those kind of old ideas are withering away and dying. And good riddance. But from all indications that I'm seeing out in the media, the train is, like, nowhere near stopping. There's so many exciting black creators and creators of color and all genders. And it's going to help unlock a key creatively for a lot of people in a lot of different ways that we don't even realize yet.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I got to ask you, do you know what you're going to say if you win?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not to put you on the spot.
RAMSEY: Well, you know, we've been trying to, like, not jinx ourselves. But there's so many of us. And we've got like three directors...
RAMSEY: ...And, you know, five producers. And it's, like, we all know good and well we can't say everything we want. I'm dying to thank, of course, my wife and my kids and my mom and dad, of course so...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm going to give you the opportunity now in case you don't get it on stage.
RAMSEY: Oh, awesome.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So hit me.
RAMSEY: Yeah. The main thing I'd say is, you know, I thank the studio, thank the Academy. Thanks everybody. I'd be all responsible. But then I'd have to say to my family - to my wife Onika (ph), to Alex (ph), Nicholas (ph) and Maya (ph), I love you guys. Thank you. To Herbert and Pauline Ramsey, this gold guy is coming to visit you real soon.
RAMSEY: That's what I'd say. But I'd also - yeah, if we had more than 45 seconds - because somehow or other, you know, the message of the movie is the thing that we really do want to live on and want to address. So what this movie has meant to people, that's the heart of any sort of acknowledgement we should give at the Oscars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, absolutely. And by the way, I always practice my Oscar acceptance speech in the mirror.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though I don't think I'll ever get one. But good luck to you. Peter Ramsey co-directed "Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse" along with Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman. It's up for animated feature film at this evening's Academy Awards. Thank you so much.
RAMSEY: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF POST MALONE AND SWAE LEE SONG, "SUNFLOWER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.