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‘Hair Love’ filmmakers on normalizing black hair and ‘girl dads’

Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver
“Hair Love” writer/co-director Matthew A. Cherry and producer Karen Rupert Toliver.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In “Hair Love,” a young girl named Zuri wakes up one morning and attempts to style her hair in a way befitting the special occasion she excitedly prepares to attend. When it doesn’t quite go as planned, she turns to her father for help. Except he’s no expert either.

But it’s OK. He learns.

“I liked the idea of something that was centered around a black family, because so often you don’t see that in animation,” says writer and co-director Matthew A. Cherry of the short film that originated from a 2017 Kickstarter campaign and is now nominated for an Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards being held Sunday.

“It felt like a great opportunity to really shine the spotlight on black fathers, because so often in mainstream media they just get a bad rap,” he adds. “If you watch movies and TV, you would think they don’t exist, but studies have actually shown that they’re among the most involved groups in their kids’ lives.”

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Cherry, a former NFL wide receiver, turned to directing (“The Last Fall,” “9 Rides”) after he left football, but this is his first animated project. Inspired by the videos he came across of dads doing their daughters’ hair, he sees the short as an opportunity to normalize black hair.

“Every week it seemed like there was a new story with a kid not able to go to school because of the type of hair they have,” Cherry says. “I remember that disturbing video with the wrestler and how they forced him to cut his hair right before the match. And the situation with DeAndre [Arnold] that’s been going viral lately.” Arnold is the Texas high school senior who was told he couldn’t attend his prom or graduation unless he cut his dreadlocks. Cherry was so moved by the student’s plight that he’s invited Arnold and his family to the Academy Awards as his guest.

A survey of the animated, live action and documentary short films nominated for this year’s Academy Awards.

Among Cherry’s collaborators is Karen Rupert Toliver, Sony Pictures Animation’s executive vice president of creative, who was drawn to the cultural specificity of the project and became a producer on the film.

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“To be sitting in a room with three black men directors and another black female producer — I’d never been in rooms like that in all the years that I’ve been in animation,” says Toliver, who worked at Fox Animation and Walt Disney Animation Studios before coming to Sony. “It just felt very comfortable, and it felt great for us to be able to really tell our stories and figure out how to get it in a piece of animation.”

Cherry also turned to artist Vashti Harrison, who illustrated the “Hair Love” book, which also was made possible by the Kickstarter campaign, and became the film’s character designer.

“The way she draws hair and the way she draws young black children,” Cherry says, “her drawings are just so special and unique.”

Cherry and Toliver discussed “Hair Love” and centering black stories and storytellers during a recent afternoon at Sony Pictures Animation.

After Kobe Bryant’s death, many of the emotional remembrances have been about him being a proud “girl dad.” How important is it for people to see images of strong, supportive fathers?

Toliver: I think it’s everything. I think a lot about masculinity, you know, and the images and stereotypes of what it means to be a man. I think it’s so powerful when you see the soft side of a man that we know is there and needs to be there. It’s incredibly powerful.

When you see the role that media plays in terms of changing social attitudes toward sexual orientation, gender norms and all of that, I just feel even more responsible to really kind of open the door to show the various ways that men can be men. I think that’s the best way for them to understand that it’s OK to be warm and loving.

Cherry: I think personally, with rent being so expensive everywhere, we’re living in a time now where both parents have to work. And it’s weird because dads get [special] credit for doing stuff that moms do all the time. I would love to get to a point where that’s all normalized. If you see a dad pushing a stroller or having a baby in the little baby carrier or whatever, like, it’s just a normal thing.

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If Mom has to go to work early or go out of town, and Dad is left there with the kids, what are you gonna do? You’re going to step up and you’re going to get them ready, you’re gonna make them breakfast, you’re gonna take them to school.

Karen, how did you become involved with the project?

Toliver: I’ve been in animation for many years working on these big animated features [“Ice Age,” “Ferdinand’], and I’ve loved the movies that I’ve worked on but there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the movies through the years.

I knew [Cherry’s] manager and partner, Monica [Young], and when they got the Kickstarter going and they were looking for people to help, she reached out to me to produce. I was an executive at another studio at the time and I really didn’t think I could do it, but I was so excited by the idea.

It was a piece that was unapologetically black and just so important. I’ve got two young kids, two boys, and I feel very protective of the black male image in particular out in the world. There were so many things going on with the police stoppings and stuff at the time, and it just really hit me.

‘Hair Love’ still
A scene from “Hair Love,” directed by Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith.
(Sony Pictures Animation )

We’re seeing more awareness and discussion about black natural hair. How has it been seeing “Hair Love” as a part of that conversation?

Cherry: I think with each story that comes out about a young kid who’s not able to wear their natural hair to school or somebody being fired from their job because of what their hair looks like, it becomes more and more relevant.

That new law that got passed in California, the CROWN Act, I think that’s the thing I’m most personally excited about. Because it’s a real-life action that is in direct correlation to what our vision was for the short film. We wanted to effect real change. And this is something that I think really could help kids not have to deal with this moving forward. It’s such a crazy thing that you need a law to be passed to be able to wear your hair.

DeAndre, for example, has been growing his hair out since the seventh grade. The semester before he’s supposed to graduate, they’re suspending him and they basically threatened to kick him out of school, and he had to change schools. It’s crazy we have to have these conversations but I’m happy that we’re having them because it’s about time.

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Toliver: You hear people say, “I loved this short.” “My daughter loves it.” “I wish we had it when I was young.” It really gives us a sense of self-love so that we can protect ourselves when we’re being judged or criticized or policed with our hair. I grew up in Texas; it would have never occurred to me to wear natural hair until I was an adult because that was just the community you were in. My parents were all about assimilation. So we pressed it and we tried to look as European as possible.

But when you get older and you get the courage to do something and just stand up for yourself, it feels really powerful. It’s great to think about these kids now and letting them see themselves in an image that may give them power.

“Hair Love” is such a specific story but has found broad acceptance. What would you say to people who still are resistant to greenlighting projects with such culturally specific stories?

Toliver: The people have spoken. You can see everybody’s responses online. Usually when we make a movie ... marketed a traditional way, you look at the box office, and that’s kind of all you have.

With this, you have millions of responses and comments. How they’re connecting to it just validates why this was made and why it should be made and they want more. It demystifies this idea of “not knowing if there’s an audience for that.”

The thing is that when you’re more specific, it actually makes it universal. We need to stop telling the lies that there’s not an audience.

Cherry: That’s the thing I really love about filmmaking: how you can get this peek into this slice of life with different cultures and communities that you otherwise wouldn’t normally see those intimate moments. And I just think that’s what the world needs right now.

We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for Karen, and I think that’s another big part of that conversation. We need more decision makers and executives of color who are able to see these stories at their Kickstarter level, their script level, and be able to actually understand those stories and see those potentials.

‘Hair Love’ still
A scene from “Hair Love.”
(Sony Pictures Animation )

Why was it important to feature a young dad with locs and tattoos?

Cherry: On the Kickstarter, the dad looked different. He was kind of your typical, cartoon sitcom dad. He was in his 40s, a little bit of a potbelly — he was safer. When Karen got involved, she had really the great idea to make him younger.

Toliver: I loved the idea and how powerful images are, that you can sort of take people one way and make them think, “OK, is he that person where you should walk across the street?” And then shift the perspective and make him that dad.

Maybe just because I have boys, I’m very sensitive to that, but I really wanted to kind of trick [audiences] into thinking one thing but then have them see this loving father. I think that’s just a part of normalizing the fact that these young black men that look just like him exist.

Cherry: I have a lot of friends who are young fathers and have crazy amounts of tattoos. And some have locs, some have braids, some have shortcuts, but they’re among the most loving people that you’ll see. They’ll do anything for their kids.

We’ve been having conversations about Hollywood’s lack of diversity for years. But “Hair Love” is one of the few films centered on black experiences that received an Oscar nomination this year.

Toliver: It was crazy when we saw that statistic of how few there are. But it’s kind of unfortunate for the conversation to get focused on the very end of the process when the movies have been made.

It’s about the diversity of the beginning. It’s making sure that more [films] get made, that there are more people like myself in the room who want to tell those stories. There’s going to be one year that ebbs and one year that flows, but it’s like, enough already. We need to keep it as a constant conversation at the beginning of the process and make more movies.

Cherry: The work is there. You have films like “Clemency” and “The Farewell” and “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” There are so many great movies that came out this year that were worthy, but for whatever reason, they didn’t get that recognition.

Sadly, when it comes to awards like this, so often, they’re not ahead of the curve. They don’t normally recognize first-time filmmakers. What ends up happening is that you have this long, illustrious career and then 30 years later you get your flowers.

‘Hair Love’ still
A scene from “Hair Love.”
(Sony Pictures Animation)

We focus so much on live-action film statistics. How different is it in animation?

Toliver: It’s worse. That’s why I’ve been on a mission to at least get more live-action people who hadn’t thought about animation to think about it. That’s why I really want Matthew and [“Into the Spider-Verse” codirector] Peter Ramsey, who had a live-action career before, to be seen by people and inspire other filmmakers who haven’t thought of animation to come our way so that they don’t have to feel like they [need to] go to animation school to actually do it because the numbers are just not there.

For me to get the level of diverse projects that I want to take through, I don’t have time for people to go to animation school. I need them to come and really focus on it as storytelling.

Matthew, has your thinking of how to tell stories changed after having an animated project under your belt?

Cherry: Yeah, definitely. I think sometimes as filmmakers, we’re in such a rush to hurry up and get our project done that sometimes you don’t take the time that you need for development. With animation it’s nothing but development. It took us two years to do a six-minute and 48-second short film — in part because we all had day jobs and we were working on it on nights and weekends two or three times a week.

Even if I go on to do live-action features at the studio level, I really want to make sure that I’m taking the time to storyboard it out and see it multiple times before getting into production. I love how the director of “Parasite” [Bong Joon Ho] does that; he storyboards his own stuff.

There are a lot of techniques, I think, that live-action filmmakers really could learn from animation. With a majority of animated movies, you could tell that they’re so much more well developed because they’re more collaborative. You can tell there are multiple voices in the room chiming in and just constantly getting better.

In live-action, often it’s just you. You’re the sole voice that’s controlling the narrative and sometimes that works, you know, like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, etc. And sometimes it doesn’t.

I just think the more collaboration the better. Even if somebody brings a note or an idea that you don’t like, it makes you think about why it’s so important that you keep it the way that it was. Critical thinking like that about every step of the process will only make you a better filmmaker and only make your project better. Even if it’s a bad note.


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