When Matthew A. Cherry first launched his Kickstarter campaign to create the animated short Hair Love, like most other crowdfunding participants, he had high hopes. And when filmmakers Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce Smith supported the project, it became clear to many that the former NFL wide receiver was sitting on something special.
Hair Love hit theaters August 14th as an opener for Angry Birds 2, and was easily the highlight of that experience for many moviegoers. And while audiences enjoying the story about Zuri, her father Stephen, and her hair with a mind of its own might not have seen Oscar buzz on the horizon, Cherry manifested it. In 2012, he tweeted that he would be nominated for the prestigious award one day. And just a week ago, that dream came to fruition.
ESSENCE spoke with Cherry, and executive vice president of creative for Sony Pictures Animation, and the film’s producer Karen Toliver (if you didn’t know her, now you know), to talk about how it feels to be nominated for an Academy Award, the importance of the short film, and the CROWN Act.
ESSENCE: I know, obviously, you had the Oscars on the brain. But when you were making this film did you think that it would become this phenomenon?
Matthew Cherry: [We saw] how every time one of these viral videos of a dad [with his daughter] hit the timeline how much people engaged with it. That was always the secret weapon, and knowing that if we were able to get at a really good level, it should be able to connect. But I don’t think anybody would expect half of what happened with this project. It just feels like a dream. This is my first animated film!
Karen Toliver: Matthew had such a clear idea of what he wanted to do from the beginning. And you go through this process with animation to really just try to make it as great as possible. But yeah, you couldn’t have told me. I think we checked ourselves for sure.
And how did you figure out what was special in these characters that you were able to bring that out and get that done in five minutes?
Cherry: It was just really wanting to make sure that they look like people we know. There are so many young girls that are so proud of their hair and they wear it with pride. And we really wanted to capture that with Zuri. For our Kickstarter campaign, the parents were a little older. Then Karen had this great idea to make [the dad] look a little younger.
Toliver: I just thought it was a really good opportunity for us to show a young Black man that typically, when you look at him, some people may think, oh, well, he’s got a sleeve tattoo. He’s this, he’s that. What does he do? And then to surprise them with, no, he’s a loving dad. Again, we know these people. But the world is not seeing a dad that looks like that out. So it was really important for us to push that authenticity of that young millennial Black father with the dreads and then just flip that stereotype.
We’ve had so much going on with Black hair in the past year and now with Cory Booker trying to push the CROWN Act to the federal level. Do you feel like that’s why films like this are important?
Cherry: It’s crazy just how all this has been so full circle. Dove actually supported our film at the Kickstarter level. And they’ve been really amazing partners. And I’m just seeing all the work that’s being done around the CROWN Act in trying to help normalize our hair. That’s such a huge message that we have with the short. Gabrielle Union is an associate producer on the project along with her husband Dwayne Wade.
I know she’s had her own recent hair story. Have you ever had an instance where you were in this position or had a crazy hair story where you could relate to this?
Cherry: I remember when I was playing football and trying to wear locs under my helmet and stuff. Ricky Williams wore his hair natural, he had locs. And everybody was making jokes about them like, ‘Oh, is he Jamaican?’ Because there was this stereotype that people don’t wear their hair like that unless they’re from the islands. But now it’s like, you turn on the football game, half these players walk out with long locs.
Toliver: I grew up in Texas and my parents were much older. I got my hair pressed all through childhood, and got burned with a comb and the whole bit. And so when I was trying to find my identity, it was not perceived well. And even now, I have people, Black women, asking, ‘Well, you’re in a corporate environment. Are you able to really wear your hair like this now?’ So there’s still so much to talk about.
Cherry: Karen is killing the game. She is one of the few Black women execs working in animation and doing it at an extremely high level. I think she’s the first Black woman to ever be nominated for an Oscar in animation, and if we win, she’ll be the first Black woman to ever win an Oscar in that category. So I just really want to shine a light on her because we wouldn’t be anywhere near this position that we are in today if she didn’t believe in the project. She took a lot of risks. And to see them pay off like this is just amazing.
Toliver: Matthew is my biggest champion. But it was a no-brainer. I’ve been in this business for a long time. And I’ve loved animation and I love being a part of it. I’ve often been the only Black person on a team. And I have loved all the things that I’ve worked on, but I’ve never had this personal experience of being in a room with three Black directors and talking about our stories so personally and being able to help put it on the screen. It’s just been a dream come true.