Filmmaker Reflects on Success of His Oscar-Winning Animated Short
Matthew A. Cherry, an NFL wide receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, retired in 2007 to pursue a career in entertainment. Thirteen years later, Cherry found himself at the Academy Awards last month, accepting an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. Cherry returned to his hometown of Chicago later in February to speak at a Black History Month celebration hosted by Macy’s. The Reporters Inc.’s Rashanah Baldwin chatted with him before the screening of his 2020 Oscar-winning Hair Love. Cherry is credited as the film’s writer, co-producer, and co-director.
Rashanah Baldwin: How did you come up with the idea for Hair Love? What was your inspiration for making a film focused on Black fathers doing their daughters’ hair?
Matthew A. Cherry: I’ve always been into stories that focus on the small moments that I think a lot of people overlook. Back in 2016, I came across this really touching image of a father with his daughter sitting in his lap and she’s looking up at him with so much love. She had Afro puffs and that image just really inspired the idea. I then sent out a tweet trying to really get the story going, and for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. But then a year later I kept coming across these viral videos of Black dads doings their daughters’ hair, and I was just like, “if ever there was a sign that now is the time to move on this idea, you know this is it,” so we did the Kickstarter (crowdfunding) campaign in July 2017. The original goal was to raise like $50,000 to $70,000. We ended up raising over $300,000 in 30 days. There’s just been magic on this project ever since the first day, and it’s been crazy to see this whole journey kind of culminate with the Oscars.
Matthew A. Cherry celebrates his Oscar for Hair Love in February.
RB: That’s a huge accomplishment! What’s kinds of responses from Black fathers have you received?
MC: When you look at mainstream media, you would think that Black dads aren’t present in their kids’ lives but studies have actually shown that Black men are among the most involved in their kids’ lives even if they’re not married to their partner. So, definitely there’s been a lot of love from fathers who’ve said “thank you for seeing us, we try just as hard as anybody else does, but so often we don’t get the love for it.”
RB: What do you think makes your film so special?
MC: I think the great thing about our story is that not only does it center around the father and the daughter, but the mom is there — hiding in plain sight — and you kind of see that the end when we reveal the big reason why it’s so important for the daughter to get her hair done.
RB: There has been so much discussion in the last few years about Black hair. Why do you think we’re having this conversation again? Why do we have to teach non-Blacks about our hair?
MC: I think that back in the 1960s and ‘70s there was a lot of pride in our natural hair. The Afros were being rocked on a regular basis, but I think when we got into the ‘80s, the assimilation for us was trying to get into these mainstream jobs. The conversation just never happened in terms of us being able to maintain our own identity within the workplace and at school. and so, it’s just been this kind of thing that’s been bubbling up for years. There was the recent story about the high school wrestler who was forced to cut his hair before a match. Or cheerleaders who have braids that aren’t allowed to compete in competitions unless they change their hair. Or even people in corporate America not being able to wear their natural hair. So, I’m glad that conversation is happening now. I’m glad we have played a small part to kind of help get the word out about the CROWN Act and other legislation that’s kind of in that same vein, trying to help make it illegal to discriminate against us for wearing our natural hair.
Scenes from the 2020 Oscar-winning Animated Short Film, Hair Love.
RB: How do we teach the youth, our children, to defend themselves or stand up for themselves about their hair, without getting expelled or in trouble?
MC: Look at the story with young De’Andre Arnold. You know he’s such a good kid. He’s been growing his locks out since he was in the seventh grade and then they decided three months before his graduation, they change the rules and say that he can’t have hair that exceeds a certain length. He’s the same good kid. He wants to be a veterinarian. That’s why it was important for us to invite him to the Oscars with us to help get the word out about his story and kind of show just how crazy these rules are that don’t allow us to be ourselves. It’s just an important conversation to have and I’m glad that we’re having it now.
RB: Some say it’s hard to top winning an Oscar, so what’s next for you?
MC: I think I want to continue telling stories with the same love and energy that Hair Love has. We really did it with pure intentions, just really wanting to change the world and leave it a little better than how we found it—to make something that would help young people pursue their natural hair journey a little sooner. We’ve been hearing so many stories of people who have seen the film saying, “you know, I wish I had this when I was younger.” For me, I want to continue doing projects that have that same level of love and care and attention to detail.
Matthew A. Cherry discusses Hair Love at the Macy’s Black History month event in Chicago in February.
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