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Image: Small Town Animation Studios

When the diabetes world got a quick peek at an unnamed minor character in an upcoming Pixar film, the reaction across social media was clear undiluted joy.

Why would adults and children with type 1 diabetes (T1D) and the people who care about them get so excited about spotting a diabetes device on an animated character?

Because representation matters.

According to a 2019 PBS News Hour report on racially diverse teens, never seeing someone who looks like you represented in pop culture can impact mental health and take a toll on self-esteem. Whereas, on the flip side, seeing yourself represented can be inspirational and provide a sense of being accepted in society.

Along those lines, the diabetes community has something big to look forward to: a new independent animated film called “Gumshe: The Type 1 Protector,” coming in summer 2022, that actually features a main superhero character who has T1D. The film trailer will be released in November 2021, and an animated short series will follow the film in early 2022.

The film is the brainchild — and the motivation for starting an entire animation company — for Jermaine Hargrove, creator of the film and series.

When Hargrove was diagnosed with T1D 15 years ago at 29 years old, he left his hospital stay not thinking of himself, but of the parents who go through all that with their children.

“I came out of my 5-day hospital stay and thought, ‘Wow, a lot of parents must really struggle with a diagnosis of their child,’” he told DiabetesMine.

“I didn’t know about T1D, and I thought about how many feel [lost] that way, so I decided to turn my lemons into lemonade,” he said.

A father, lifetime comic book lover and dabbler in art, Hargrove began imagining and drawing, coming up with the film’s main character before he even knew she’d be the center of a movie. In March 2020 (yes, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic), he and his wife Whaketa founded Small Town Animation Studios in South East Georgia to support his filmmaking project.

The character’s full name is Justice Johnson (the first name in honor of Hargrove’s own daughter). She is an African American teen character who lives in a city based on the underserved New Jersey community Hargrove grew up in.

And while she has T1D, it’s not that condition that brings her superpowers. Rather, it’s her love of gum, something she chews constantly (like his own daughter).

In the film, Justice is at a tech conference when she is exposed to a dangerous chemical. But rather than kill her, Hargrove said, it gives her superpowers — in her case, the ability to shoot gum from her palms to help her save the world (think, Spider-Man). You can get the feeling for that in their teaser trailer.

Hargrove felt it was important that diabetes not be the reason for her superpower. Why?

“She’s not a diabetic superhero,” he explained. “She’s a superhero with diabetes.”

One theme of the film is to raise awareness of T1D and prevention of type 2 diabetes (T2D), he said.

It begins with Justice, now known by her superhero moniker Gumshe, feeling awkward about her diabetes — doing things like stepping aside to check her blood sugar or leave the room to take insulin.

“She feels shy about it,” he said. “The other kids are all drinking soda and she cannot, so she feels strange.”

But as time goes on, “She grows into herself. She grows to not mind if anyone sees her continuous glucose monitor (CGM) or anything else.”

The superpowers arrive via gum, he said, because “everyone loves gum and everyone can have gum. Bubble gum brings everyone together. Like music: it’s everywhere.”

Gumshe realizes her power and learns to use it to help the world.

As she does that, diabetes naturally folds into the story, giving a “spoon fed” simple and clear education to all about diabetes, Hargrove said.

“We break stigmas up,” he added.

One example is Gumshe having a discussion with a relative who has T2D. In that conversation, they explain the differences between the two related conditions, naturally helping educate the viewer.

“I get that [confusion] all the time,” Hargrove said. “So, I knew we had to address it.”

While the film is still in production, Hargrove and his wife have already attracted some big-name support.

Jermaine Hargrove

He very nearly snagged investment from Katherine Jackson — mother of the late Michael Jackson — but that unfortunately fell through.

One big partnership that did stick is with the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

The ADA will be promoting the film across all their platforms and helping the world get to know Gumshe and other characters even before the film launches.

“[This film] is about health equity,” Hargrove said. “Gumshe is from a single-parent household, so things change financially with diabetes. The ADA said this is perfect, as they are trying to do a lot around health equity.”

Charles Henderson, chief development officer for the ADA, told DiabetesMine the partnership is a perfect fit.

“We’re always looking for new and unique ways to reach the diabetes community,” he said.

“When we heard there was going to be a character living with type 1 diabetes and superpowers in a new film, we couldn’t help but think about all the young children living with diabetes watching cartoons on television and looking for characters they can relate to.”

Henderson said the ADA was drawn to how seamlessly and simply the film shares diabetes educational points. That, he said, will help all people with diabetes.

“Diabetes is not a disease you can see with the naked eye,” he said. “Because of the less obvious nature of the disease, there has been a certain level of shame cultivated in society and that has left some people with diabetes feeling alone and isolated. No one deserves to feel like this, which is why seeing a character in a movie having diabetes is one of many first steps to eliminate the shame and make people living with diabetes feel seen, heard, and inspired.”

The ADA will begin promoting the film in early September 2021, introducing the public to Gumshe and her peers across all their platforms.

Then, on World Diabetes Day, Nov. 14, the first trailer for the film will be released. A second trailer comes on Feb. 5 (National Bubble Gum Day) 2022, and a third in May. The full film, which will run at an hour and 35 minutes, is set to release on June 5, 2022.

The film, which is shot in CGI animation, will be viewable on “Animation TV,” a new free online streaming service being launched by Small Town Animation Studios.

“We wanted it to be free,” Hargrove explained. “We want anyone who wants to see this to be able to access it.”

That means there will be ads, he said.

The film will be followed by a 2D-animated series called “Gumshe: Protect the City,” that will have 10 episodes, each running at 20 minutes.

There will also be a Gumshe Grant Program that uses a portion of the proceeds for insulin assistance for those in need, Hargrove said.

Hargrove is hoping Gumshe strikes a chord not just for those with diabetes, but for all.

“Imagine if Superman had cancer, or Spider-Man had AIDS,” he said. “That’s the kind of impact we want.”

And as excited as he is for success, Hargrove said his goal is a bit different than your average filmmaker.

“I don’t see success around opening numbers,” he said. “I don’t care if just one person watches this and takes away what they need from it. Success to us means awareness, acceptance, and feeling understood. And if that’s just one person, well, we’ve succeeded.”