Is America ready for a Sikh Captain America — a superhero fighting hate crimes and intolerance? In the wake of 9/11, the massacre of Sikh Americans in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and America post-Ferguson, my answer is a resounding yes! If superheroes can battle aliens, cyborgs, and fellow villainous superheroes, why can’t there be one that fights for social and racial justice?
In 2013, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh wore a Captain America costume for the first time with a royal blue turban to match his ensemble. The short documentary Red, White, and Beard is a quirky, lighthearted glance into Sikh Captain America and the man behind this growing phenomenon.
Like any origin story, heroes are born out of tragedy and violence. Singh wrote about the circumstances in which Sikh Captain America was born in a piece for Salon.com:
Circumstances and people can bring out the best in all of us. Tragedies and conflicts are the most potent opportunities for change. The hate crime wave after 9/11 provided the spark for me to start creating cartoons. The massacre of six worshipers at the Sikh Milwaukee temple last year gave me a reason to get out of my own way and agree to don the Captain America uniform. How we respond to these cracks in our life’s fabric can chart a whole new course… Most Americans, actually many across the globe, have no clue who Sikhs are. And, believe me, there are many people and things I have no clue about either. Ignorance is not the problem. It is what we do with ignorance, our ensuing actions, that create real moments in life. Would I love to see everyone on this planet know who Sikhs are, not make us targets of hate, leave us alone and do a better job of targeting someone else? Hell no. I want a world where we can embrace each other despite our ignorance, in celebration of our differences… Together we create super-heroic worlds.
Co-written and co-directed by Ben Fischinger (also cinematographer), Matthew Rogers (also producer, editor), and Ryan Westra (also cinematographer), Red, White, and Beard follows Singh as he interacts with the public in Manhattan. He acts as a tour guide and ambassador to NYC, talking to people from out-of-town, answering questions, and providing directions to places to eat.
Singh also conducts man-on-the-street interviews with people, asking them questions such as “Where am I from? What religion am I from? Do I look like Captain America?” Some people incorrectly guess that he’s from India or that he’s a Christian while others correctly guess that he’s Sikh and born in the United States. As his alter ego, Sikh Captain America, Singh debunks people’s definition of an American and specifically, an American superhero.
I laughed when some people commented that Singh didn’t look like Captain America because he was “skinny” and I thought to myself, that’s exactly who Steve Rogers was in the beginning before he became a super soldier! Steve was a skinny guy with a lot of courage, heart, and conviction. So maybe the two aren’t so different.
After watching the film, I had a chance to speak with Matthew Rogers (co-director, co-writer, producer, editor) of Red, White, and Beard:
ALICE: What is the mission of this short film by the filmmakers and Vish?
MATTHEW: Our mission as filmmakers with this short is very similar to Vish’s goal in his cartoons: push the American public’s perception of what it means to be American, which hopefully will lead to people realizing their own prejudices toward others who look different than them.
What were the challenges in creating this short film?
One of our main challenges arose in pre-production when Ben, Ryan, and I discussed the story. How long should it be? What should be the tone? What is Vish’s story really about, and how do we show it visually? We ultimately decided to keep the film around 10 minutes and be primarily lighthearted, funny, and quirky. It’s difficult to open people’s minds to something about which they already have preconceived notions. If we had chosen a longer and/or more serious route, it would have been that much harder to get people who most need it to watch the film. We imagine a shorter, quirkier piece will prove to be more shareable online, meaning it will be more likely to reach such people.
I really enjoyed the slow-motion scenes with Vish play fighting with people — were there scenes that you wanted to include but you didn’t have enough time/room?
Ryan, Ben, and I worked really well together particularly because of our directing styles. Ryan is a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, I like to have a solid plan in place, and Ben’s both. This helped immensely in that we didn’t shoot many scenes besides the ones in the final cut. The only scene we cut out was an extended sequence while Vish gets dressed in the Captain America uniform — we asked him to explain the five Sikh articles of faith while he combed his hair, tied his turban, etc. Once I edited the sequence, Ryan, Ben, and I all decided that it wasn’t necessary for the story we were trying to tell. Also, it greatly slowed down the pace of the film. Other bits that didn’t make it into the final cut include tons of establishing shots of New York City (many of which we filmed during camera tests), one or two on-the-street interviews, and extra shots of Vish working on his laptop.
I noticed on the whole most people were receptive to Sikh Captain America. Was it a conscious choice to not include any hostile or racist responses to Vish?
We were surprised while shooting that we didn’t hear any hostile responses to Sikh Captain America. In fact, whenever Vish was in costume, he received nothing but respect. Dozens and dozens of people wanted to take pictures with him, shake his hand, talk with him about his motivations. There was one instance where someone — right after Vish had changed into his normal street clothes — called him “Osama.” Vish told us this happens frequently when he’s not in costume. It’s difficult to say for sure, but even if we had been filming at the time, we probably wouldn’t have included it in the film. Sure, it is something that Vish admirably endures nearly every day. But we wanted to show Vish’s actions as he brought Sikh Captain America to the people to make positive change rather than bringing in negativity and what some people may perceive as blame.
Superheroes have historically been white and male and the ones that are people of color are often caricatures based on racial stereotypes. How important is it for people to see the full range of humanity reflected in popular culture and specifically in comics? With the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, how can we encourage more diversity in comics?
I think — and I know Ryan and Ben feel the same — that it is time for American popular culture to reflect American people. Having people of color represented on television, in movies and magazines, and in comics is so important to youth development (e.g., role models) and cross-cultural understanding. But it is crucial that people of color aren’t shown in racist or stereotyped manners. Because media has such a huge role in shaping public awareness, I believe it’s up to these production and publishing companies to recognize any prejudice they depict; it’s just as necessary that the American public push for greater POC representation in popular culture. The comics world in particular has recently been making strides to change people’s perceptions of superheroes. Marvel now has a female Thor and a black Captain America which demonstrates the company’s realization of and reaction to this problem.
What’s next for Sikh Captain America?
I don’t know what’s next for Vish and Sikh Captain America. I know he has some upcoming appearances throughout the country in his calendar. I know Vish is still consistently publishing more cartoons on his website in response to events around the world (Charlie Hebdo, for example). I know Sikh Captain America will continue to push people’s perceptions about Americanism and encourage discussion. Vish put it best when he said there may come a time when his superhero won’t be needed, when other religions and cultures and races have made homes in the American eye. Until then, as with any superhero’s, Sikh Captain America’s story is to be continued…
Superheroes are archetypes that almost everyone understands in popular culture — Singh uses the costume and persona of Captain America to share Sikh culture and identity in a way that’s accessible and approachable to people who may not want to learn about hate crimes, politics or race.
I want to live in a super heroic world where there are all types of characters, the good, the bad, the ugly and everything in between that reflects our world accurately. In his mission to dispel stereotypes and discrimination toward Sikhs everywhere, Vishavjit Singh is fighting the good fight.