'Hair Love' creator Matthew Cherry aims to 'normalize black fatherhood' with Oscar-winning short

Director Matthew A. Cherry and producer Karen Rupert Toliver arrive for the 2020 Oscars Nominees Luncheon in Hollywood on January 27, 2020. (Photo by Valerie MACON / AFP)

UPDATE 2/9/20: Hair Love took home the Oscar for Best Animated Short on Sunday.

NFL wide receiver turned filmmaker, Matthew Cherry is quickly rising to Hollywood fame — most recently, with his short film Hair Love, which is a nominee at the 92nd Academy Awards this Sunday. Both Cherry and his producer Karen Toliver 一 the first black woman to be nominated in the Short Film Category — spoke with Yahoo Lifestyle about their inspirations for the project and the impact they hope to make.

Cherry and Toliver’s short, which was released in August 2019, started out as a $300,000 Kickstarter campaign — the most any short film campaign on the crowdfunding platform has ever raised. After gaining backing from a long list of celebrities, including Jordan Peele, Yara Shahidi, Gabourey Sidibe, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union the idea quickly turned into a reality — and proved a huge success.

By September, the short film — based on a New York Times-bestseling children’s book — was being shown in movie theatres nationwide, garnering critical acclaim and earning an outpouring of support on social media. Cherry’s initial tweet introducing the short got 134,000 likes and over 60,000 retweets on Twitter. But the spotlight increased in mid-January when actress Issa Rae, who is the voice of one of the character's in Cherry's film, announced the Oscar nomination — which Cherry said felt “like a dream.

Behind the scenes, Cherry says in an interview with Yahoo Lifestyle, Dove reached out asking how they could support the project. Cherry says the collaboration was a successful one, as “they didn't really want to mess with the creative vision. I don't even think they asked to see the script.”

Dove’s involvement is a part of the brand’s larger goal to address hair discrimination, including a call for legislation that will help to eliminate school and workplace hair discrimination. “Dove is taking a bigger role in trying to get the word out about the CROWN Act which is authored by Senator Holly J. Mitchell,” says Cherry. “I just love it because it's the real-world component to like what we wanted to do with the short.”

In the name of sharing the love, Cherry, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade, and the team behind the animated sensation have also invited DeAndre Arnold to the Oscars. The 18-year-old Texas-native was told he couldn’t graduate unless he cut his dreadlocks. Ahead of the film’s Oscar debut, Yahoo Lifestyle speaks with Chery and Toliver about their journey.

Yahoo Lifestyle: What was the inspiration for Hair Love?

Matthew Cherry: The inspiration was just seeing a lot of these really incredible black fathers who were doing their daughter's hair [in videos] a couple of years back and it just felt like an opportunity to kind of help normalize the conversation. Two years ago when I was sharing these videos with folks, a lot of people were giving dads additional props and acting like it was an anomaly. What always happens when dads are doing stuff with their kids? It's like they get extra credit, but when the moms do it, it's kind of like that's what’s supposed to happen. 

It just feels like those same gender norms of the past where dads wouldn't push the baby in the stroller and things like that. It's all going away and we're out here simply trying to get it done. It was a great opportunity to represent that modern millennial kind of black family and also an homage to families of the past who would do this as well. You know? So that was an inspiration. 

Did you expect for it to take off the way it did?

MC: I don't think we ever could have predicted this. It's been a journey unlike any other. I don't know if it'll ever happen again. It started from a Kickstarter campaign. To go from that to having a movie in theaters, a New York Times best-selling book and now to be Oscar-nominated … this is like the best-case scenario for everything and it's all happened on the same project. It's pretty unreal. 

I guess I didn't really analyze that part of it. Like, “Wow, how did I get to know these characters so quickly and now I'm already crying about their family situation?”

Karen Toliver: I think part of it is Matthew took a lot of care into the story he wanted to tell. And then we took a lot of time with the backstory and understanding who these characters were in this particular moment in time … even though some of it didn't stay in the short, we knew that Zuri is the kind of girl that could get up and try to take care of her dad. He might've fallen asleep cause he'd been at the hospital so long and she can make her own food and make her dad's food, but what she can't do is her hair … I think that's where the intent [shows in] the layers of the characters, you know, with our hope that people would kind of take it away and really spend enough time with them so that in the end you feel triumphant in a special way. 

Yeah, [the] mom at the end, was a really big reveal too. You spend so much of the video paying attention to those gender norms and asking, “Well, where's her mom?” And so I think that was super impactful also. 

MC: I think that's one of the real powerful things you can do as a filmmaker is how you disperse information. Like, hey, maybe people will wonder where the mom is and maybe they think she passed away or maybe they're divorced or something 一 just being very conscious of where we want the audience to go. And it's funny, on the YouTube comments, I don't know why people would say this specifically, but so many comments say, “Oh, I thought they were going to go to the dance recital,” or something. That was a common thing, but when they actually saw what was happening, you know, it was even that much more impactful. 

I think that’s the beauty of the animation, the drawings, it's almost so whimsical that you don't even see it going there, but when it does, it all makes sense in the end. 

KT: We tried to take care [with] all the little details. We did research on bloggers and like “would the dad be as clueless as he is even though she's doing those hairstyles right in front of him?” Yes, yes he would be. I have a colleague that is a cancer survivor and she's got young kids and she saw the piece and I think we were inspired by Zuri touching her mother's bald head at the end because the curiosity of a child is there and the love feels like it's coming from a real place. You know?

You could really see that it didn't deter from [the] mom's beauty even though she used to have hair or even though other people have hair or even the fact the daughter has a full head of hair. It was put together really masterfully and it shows because it’s getting the attention that it deserves. 

KT: What's cool is that even [Matthew’s] experience before this film had been in live-action, his storytelling translates into animation and we had a great team of people that had the experience in animation that could help him figure out how to realize that. But it was really first about him knowing what he wanted to say, you know, it’s a gift and we just really supported that vision. 

What are the messages that you really need to leave your viewers with?

MC: We really went into this with the intention of helping normalize black hair. In a lot of ways, black hair is policed and even nowadays you can't wear your hair certain ways depending on what job you have. Like this story that hit the news yesterday about this young kid in Texas who has had locks this whole time and now that the graduation is coming up, they don't want to let them walk, so I think for us, the goal really is to help normalize it ... we shouldn't be trying to put our own Eurocentric standards of beauty upon everyone.

I think also trying to normalize and showcase that studies have come out recently showing that black men are actually the most involved in their kids' lives regardless of whether or not they're married to their partner or not, but if you looked at mainstream media? You wouldn't think that. You would think that all black dads are never around. So really wanting to normalize black fathers and lastly, just really wanting to showcase a black family in this world of animation I just think there's just something about the medium where you're able to really immerse yourself with these characters and relate to their experiences. You know, like the same thing when universal audiences appreciated Coco and same thing with Moana and, you know, with the Spider-Verse [film]. 

It's important to provide that representation.

KT: It absolutely is. For me as a mother, I’ve got black boys that are going to be going out into the world and I feel like I have a special mission to protect black men, in general. There's so many negative stereotypes, not just for fathers, but men in general and to show this loving dad, with his tattoos and his dreads and his youth, you may think one thing when you see him out in the street, but the person you're looking at is also the guy that spent hours trying to figure out how to get his daughter's hair just right. I think that's really the best thing I can do. I think images are so important to changing people's perceptions [of others] and changing their own perceptions of themselves. I think that's really the part that connects to me the most 一 trying to protect black men's images. 

A big shout out to you for being a part of such a strong movement. I think that everybody has a special way to put our own unique talents into the things that we care about and we really do have the power to make a big impact with things that we love to do. 

KT:  We've got a real responsibility and opportunity in entertainment to change the world. You look at the LGBTQ [community] and it started with representation on television and media, where it was bold acts little by little and then it became normalized. There's so many things that we can do for issues, especially our issues. We had climate change scientists coming to Hollywood talking about how the things that we do impact each other… There's something unique about animation, but all of our images really have an impact, so it's really pretty cool to talk about what's happening out in the streets in terms of activism and figure out places that they can be in entertainment. There's still just fun entertainment that people are enjoying, but that it [also] has a lot more power than you would even imagine. So, yeah, it's pretty exciting. 

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle:

Cut your dreadlocks or miss graduation, Texas high school tells teen

Parents file lawsuit against school where teachers colored in 13-year-old’s haircut with Sharpie: ‘He felt extremely degraded’

Illinois students record racist Snapchat video: ‘Bring back slavery’

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