Why Pixar’s Newest Short Film Is Its Most Important Yet

Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur,” the 16th animated feature from the beloved studio, is set to debut in theaters just in time for Thanksgiving, but it’s already getting overshadowed by a little film that may have a big impact. “Sanjay’s Super Team,” the short film screening before the feature presentation is uncharted territory for Pixar. Directed by Sanjay Patel, the mini-movie is the first ever Pixar effort to be directed by a person of color and the first with a non-Caucasian lead.

But just as importantly, “Sanjay’s Super Team” marks the first time any Pixar feature has dealt with religion, and its message couldn’t be more timely. Based on Patel’s own childhood, the short film details his attempt to reconcile his own interests (e.g., comic books) with his father’s devout Hinduism. In the film, a young Sanjay imagines the Hindu gods his father prays to as an “Avengers”-like band of superheroes. If “Sanjay’s Super Team” offers a timely reminder about cultural understanding and respect, the film can show us the importance of bridging the gap between American pop culture and our country’s growing brown population.

Although Sanjay is brought up in the Hindu faith, as a boy of South Asian descent, he stands in for the region’s multiplicity of religious traditions, as well as the media’s complicated relationship with brown people. In an interview with Pacific Standard, professor Leena Jayaswal stated that while India—where Patel’s father were born—is stereotyped as entirely Hindu, it’s incredibly diverse. “India is such a vast place with multiple religions including Muslims, Christians, Jains, [and] Sikhs,” Jayaswal said. According to the Census of India, Hindus make up a vast 80.5 percent of the population, but the country also has sizable Muslim and Christian populations, who account for a combined 15.7 percent of India’s people.

In the U.S., a diverse representation of brown folks has been slow, primarily cast as either doctors or terrorists. However, shows like Netflix’s “Master of None,” Hulu’s “The Mindy Project,” and ABC’s “Quantico” have taken great strides forward with lead roles for brown actors—Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and Priyanka Chopra, respectively. In addition, “Quantico” features Nimah, a headscarf-wearing FBI agent. “Played by Lebanese actress Yasmine Al Massri, Nimah’s presence on the show puts America’s culture war with Islam in the crosshairs, and then complicates it,” the New Republic’s Any Bhagwati writes. “It’s a bold move and a delicate balance, as Americans have long fetishized and reduced practicing Muslim women to naive, subservient victims.”

By giving Muslims and Hindus greater voices in American media, these shows reflect the realities of a changing country caught up in cultural panic about religious difference. In the next 40 years, Pew Research statistics show that Muslims will be the world’s largest religious group, while the proportion of Muslims and Hindus rapidly grows in the U.S. The number of American Hindus has doubled over the past decade, with Hinduism now the second-most widely practiced religion in Arizona and Delaware. And by 2050, projections suggest that Muslims will become the second-biggest group of believers in the United States.

If the future of America is increasingly brown, that has not escaped the notice of right-wing fearmongers. A very Jonathan Edwards-esque article recently published in Breitbart warned that “white Christians are now a minority in the nation their forebearers settled,” pointing the finger at former Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and the green-card policies of the 1960s for eliminating the “immigration controls put in place by Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.” Pointing the finger at legal immigration is a particularly shrewd move in the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis, with millions of asylum seekers fleeing a war-torn region.

The recent attacks in Paris have stoked concerns about immigrants as a terrorist threat—with over half of U.S. governors attempting to block the entry of Syrian refugees into their states—but the flow of Syrians into the country also speaks to a question of America’s identity. The United States is struggling with how to deal what its sizable brown population means for its future, and cities like Dearborn and Hamtramck in Michigan—home to some of the largest and most thriving Muslim communities in the U.S.—have been pejoratively termed “Michiganistan.” (There’s even a #Michiganistan hashtag, if you feel like being depressed.)

But the most telling example of America’s brown panic may be CNN’s recent interview with Karen Majewski, the mayor of Hamtramck. The small Michigan town of just 22,000 is making headlines for electing the United States’ first majority-Muslim city council in a city whose residents are predominantly of the Islamic faith. Fifty years ago, Hamtramck was 90 percent Polish, and CNN Karen Costello asked Majewski if she was “afraid” of the growing Muslim population in the area. Rather than asserting Americans have nothing to fear from those of non-Christian faiths, Karen Majewski actually rejected the fact that her city has a non-white majority. “I don’t think that we’re there yet,” she said.

“Sanjay’s Super Team” not only provides brown people visibility in a culture that would rather deny their existence but also helps to normalize religious difference for the film’s young and no doubt diverse audience. It’s today’s generation of toddlers and preteens (as well as their children) that will inherit America in 2050, when the country’s brown faces will be impossible to ignore. To prepare them for those realities, we need to not only be teaching kids about tolerance but introducing those subjects early as possible, which is what even the popular Scholastic book group recognized in a recent report.

Fear and anger won’t help America’s kids build a brighter multicultural future. If “Sanjay’s Super Team” teaches us the value of bringing together different cultures—whether that’s religion and comic books or disparate faiths—it’s a lesson that all of us need to learn right now.

Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon,Rolling Stone, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Advocate, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions and the co-editor of the best-sellingBOYS anthology series.