A lot of warm and fuzzies had been flying around in the steady stream of holiday messages in December, but this short film that debuted among them, from filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, is sure to be an enduring love story for the ages. Plus, it just got an Oscar nomination.
“Hair Love,” produced out of Sony Pictures Animation is among the Best Animated Short Film nominees in The Academy's Oscars competition this year. It depicts the tale of a young African American girl named Zuri who wants to get her hair just right for a big event that she has long been anticipating. Finally, the big day arrives—but what to do about her ‘do?
She heads online to the vlog of a hair artist with a portfolio of standout styles. But when she tries to recreate her favorite, her skills come up short—to the horror of her dad Stephen, who walks in on her frightening finished product.
Like a champ, he dives right in to help, but the task takes on Odyssey-like proportions, including an encounter with a gargantuan mane beast that nearly does him in. Just as he’s about to admit defeat, the vlogger comes to the rescue—leading to a surprise ending that’s both heartwarming—and heartbreaking.
The short, which includes Dove as a brand sponsor in the credits, arrives just as we’ve been seeing more authentic, nuanced depictions in the media of those who have historically been relegated to stereotype, as well as broader, more complex portrayals of gender roles. Marketers, for example, have made major moves to diversify their messages with campaigns such as HP's “Reinvent Mindsets” and “The Talk” and “The Look” from Procter & Gamble.
“Hair Love” creator and co-director Cherry himself is a man with a breadth of experiences under his belt. He had been an NFL player on teams including the Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens before he moved into filmmaking in 2007. His directing credits include the features “The Last Film” and “9 Rides,” and he also served as executive producer on “BlacKkKlansmen.”
“Hair Love” marks the realization of an idea he had been incubating for a while. In 2017, inspired by viral videos he had seen of African American dads trying to style their daughters’ hair, he developed the idea for his animated short and introduced it on Kickstarter. "Through this project, it is my hope that we can show a positive image of black fathers and their daughters, while encouraging natural hair and self-love throughout the world through the animated space," he wrote. It went on to break a platform record, earning $300,000 in funding—the most achieved by any short film idea on the site.
Cherry told AdAge that Dove was largely hands off with the project. "In the middle of the Kickstarter campaign, they reached out and were one of the few companies that really got it," he says. The brand donated some money for the production but had no requirements with regard to product placement. "That was the thing that was so great," he says. "They just really wanted to support from the beginning, and the only thing we had to do really was the shout-out in the end credits."
“Hair Love” actually became a book before it even hit the screens after Cherry signed a deal earlier this year with Penguin Random House. Sony Pictures Animation later picked it up, and the final film, which he directed with Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith, debuted in theaters in August, running before showings of “The Angry Birds Movie 2.” It made its online debut this morning on Twitter and YouTube.
Though Cherry himself is not a father, in an interview on NPR he explained the depiction of portraying a black man in a loving, tender role was crucial. “We really get a bad rap in mainstream media, particularly black fathers. There’s always the stereotype that ... we’re not present or [are] deadbeats ... And while obviously those situations do exist, it feels very much so that it’s just like disproportionately represented in that way," he said. "I have a lot of friends that are young fathers, and they’re all willing to do whatever it takes for their young girls.”
In a follow-up interview with AdAge, Cherry added, "I really love stories that humanize us, these slices of black life, these things that the general public may have their thoughts about, but when you pull back the layers, you see both the specificity of it as well as the universal appeal."
This story, first featured in December, has been updated to reflect the Best Animated Short Film Oscar nomination the film received on January 13.