Long before Black people knew about the differences between 4C and 3B hair textures, we knew our kinks and coils were to be brushed down, pressed, straightened, and tamed. Thankfully, times have changed. With the natural hair movement revving up in the past decade, Black people across the globe have become more in-tuned to the beauty of their tresses. In 2017, filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, a former NFL wide receiver, became increasingly aware of this desire to connect with our roots. However, a lack of representation of natural hair continued to fester in popular culture and Hollywood.
Teaming up with masterful artist Vashti Harrison and Sony Pictures Animation executive, Karen Toliver, Cherry hit the ground running and launched his Kickstarter campaign for Hair Love. The warm and delightful Oscar-nominated film follows Zuri, a bright-eyed young girl who wants her gloriously voluminous afro to be styled perfectly for a special occasion. Zuri’s father, Stephen, doesn’t typically take on the task of doing his daughter’s hair. Yet, with the help of a natural hair vlogger named Angela (voiced by Issa Rae), Stephen dives into Zuri’s curls showcasing the love and patience it takes to care for Black hair.
Hair Love continues to be a vital part of our cultural conversation. Shortly after the Christmas holiday, Barbers Hill High School senior DeAndre Arnold was told he would not be allowed to return to school or walk at graduation unless he cuts his dreadlocks. Arnold is an A-student who has worn locks for years. Yet, despite the national outrage, Barbers Hill High School refuses to budge on their discriminatory policy, saying only, “the district would not be commenting further on the matter.” The teen would film himself in Hair Love’s orbit as Cherry, along with producers Gabrielle Union-Wade and Dwyane Wade, invited Arnold and his mother to the Oscars as their special guests.
Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Toliver chatted with VIBE about the magic of Hair Love and their journey to the Academy Awards.
VIBE: Let’s start at the very beginning. When did you first become aware of your hair?
Matthew Cherry: That’s a good question. I’ll probably say more in high school. I went to this private high school up in the suburbs of Chicago, and it wasn’t very diverse. I was having to go to different barbers and have different conversations as it related to my hair. I think that was the first time I was like, “Oh wow, this is a totally different situation.” I was aware of my mother and sister’s hair much earlier. My mom worked a corporate job, so she always had her hair a certain way. My sister was an athlete like me, and I witnessed her hair journey as it related to sports.
Karen Toliver: For me, it was very early, elementary school. I grew up in Dallas. I went to a private school where I was the only Black kid. I recently saw the episode “Hair Day” from Black-ish, we all have that experience. It’s going to the salon, spending the whole day, or having your mom press and burn the back of your neck—all those things that we do. I started wearing my hair natural when I went to New York in college. That was really a liberating experience. Coming from Texas and going to Brooklyn for the first time, it was so eye-opening and empowering. I never turned back.
Matthew, why were you so adamant about bringing Hair Love to life and starting the viral Kickstarter campaign?
Matthew: In 2016, I had come across this cool computer-generated image of a Black dad working at his computer, with his daughter sitting right in his lap. It was so cute. The daughter had these two puffs. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never really seen this in animation before.” I made a half-hearted effort to try to get the movie made. I reached out to artists, but for whatever reason, nobody responded, I forgot about it.
Two years later, when I kept seeing these videos of dads doing their daughter’s hair, I thought, “Okay, there’s clearly something here. I’m seeing this again for a reason. The time is now.” Vashti [Harrison] had done a drawing of a friend of mine for her birthday. I hadn’t really seen Black hair being drawn in that way. Luckily, this was right before she blew up, so it worked out timing-wise. When we got the book deal with Penguin Random House, they’d already been tracking her for her first book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, so she actually ended up illustrating the Hair Love book too.
This has been such an amazing project to be a part of. Hopefully, more doors will open up, and it will be a little easier to get projects with diverse characters made. But win or lose, we're good, we've already won.
Matthew A. Cherry
Karen, I know that you were involved with Hair Love on a personal level before Sony got involved. What bolstered your decision to attach yourself to this project?
Karen: I knew our producing partner, Monica [Young] socially. When Monica and Matthew were starting the Kickstarter, they were reaching out to people they knew in animation, and they’d already gotten Peter Ramsey and Frank Abney involved. They asked me about helping out. I was an executive at Fox at the time. I said, “Listen, I’ve got a day job, but I love what this is about.” I’ve been in animation for two decades but had never seen anything about a Black family in the way that Matthew was talking about it. I wanted to support them, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to be the producer.
Luckily, it was at a time where I was leaving Fox and going to Sony, so I was able to put it as a producer project. I was able to come into Sony knowing that this was going to be a little hobby, a nights and weekends thing. Luckily, Sony really believed in it and understood. Working on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, they knew how important diversity and representation is, so they just supported it as almost a super sponsor.
Now that the film has debuted and the book is out, we’ve all seen these gorgeous images of little Black girls across the globe watching the movie and reading the book. What have these images meant to the both of you?
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Karen: It’s so emotional and so wonderful. I could have never imagined this response. Somebody even recreated the whole short in live-action, shot for shot. There’s something about animation that you can place yourself in it. It’s really a gift.
Matthew: It goes back to what we wrote in the Kickstarter campaign. We wanted to create something that people would see themselves in while changing the conversation around natural hair. It’s just crazy how much more has happened, like that news with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley coming out and announcing that she is dealing with alopecia.
Then there’s the whole conversation around The CROWN Act that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture. For us, being able to help to normalize that conversation and do something that shows a young girl who is proud of her hair, and her young millennial dad who has tattoos and is wearing long locks—it’s been really cool.
There is so much collaboration in Hair Love. One of your main partners was Dove; how did they come on board for the project?
Matthew: They were involved very early on. I think they reached out the first week of the Kickstarter before we even knew we were going to hit our goal. They just basically asked how they could support us, and they gave us a little money to help us get over the hump. Dove has been supportive throughout this process, and they are one of the big backers of The CROWN Act. They were just like, we see what you guys are doing, and we really support the idea.
Have there been discussions about extending the Hair Love universe into television or a feature-length film?
Karen: Right now, we’re just enjoying the celebration, but we love those characters. There’s been a lot of thought getting to this moment. So yeah, we’re talking about it and trying to see what makes sense.
There's something about animation that you can place yourself in it. It's really a gift.
Matthew, back in 2012, you said you wanted to be an Oscar-nominated director, and now that has come to fruition. Hair Love has been nominated for Best Animated Short at the 2020 Academy Awards. How does that feel?
— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) January 13, 2020
Matthew: When I tweeted that in 2012, it was a darker time. I’d done my first feature, and I had hoped that the world would open up for me, and agents would reach out, and job opportunities would come, and I could break into TV. None of that happened. It was just something I wanted to put out there to keep me motivated and keep my eye on the prize, but for it to happen is just unreal. I love that the project is getting that much more shine.
Therefore, The CROWN Act will get much more shine, and young Black girls will be able to have more confidence moving forward. This has been such an amazing project to be a part of. Hopefully, more doors will open up, and it will be a little easier to get projects with diverse characters made. But win or lose, we’re good, we’ve already won.
The 92nd Academy Awards will air on ABC February 9 at 8 pm EST. Learn more about The CROWN Act here.