Three years later, Cherry has an Oscar nomination for his vision, which audiences first saw in theaters ahead of “The Angry Birds Movie 2.” In just under seven minutes, “Hair Love” follows Zuri, a 7-year-old with a lively mop of kinky curls, who wakes up on a special day and tries to do her hair with the help of a video made by her mother, a natural-hair vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s “Insecure”).
It does not go well.
Enter Zuri’s father, Stephen, a young, tattooed man with dreadlocks and the same caramel complexion as his daughter. He also tries (and fails) to do Zuri’s hair, a dramatic bass line underscoring the tension as he nervously attempts to part her thick curls. But after his daughter breaks into tears, he tries again — moisturizing and detangling Zuri’s curls section by section — before twisting them into a stylish row of puff buns.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Cherry said his goal with “Hair Love” was twofold: He wanted the film to encourage kids to embrace their natural hair. He also wanted the film to portray the powerful images he had seen in those Internet videos but typically had not seen on screen, particularly when it came to animated films: black fathers who were deeply present in their children’s lives.
The response to the Kickstarter was overwhelming. The campaign blew past its initial $75,000 goal, then a second $125,000 goal — eventually pulling in more than $280,000, a record for projects whose creators have identified them as animated shorts on the crowdfunding platform.
The project attracted a number of celebrity backers — “Grownish” star Yara Shahidi and “Empire’s” Gabourey Sidibe among them — and the veteran animators who would become Cherry’s co-directors on the short: Everett Downing Jr. of Pixar and Bruce Smith, creator of “The Proud Family.” Peter Ramsey, co-director of the Oscar-winning animated feature “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and Pixar’s Frank Abney also lent support; the two are credited as executive producers.
As “Hair Love” got underway, Cherry sought advice from Karen Rupert Toliver, a longtime animation studio executive who had shepherded the “Rio” and “Ice Age” series for Fox Animation. In late 2017, Toliver moved to Sony Animation, where she oversees the studio’s creative department. She decided to work on “Hair Love” as a side project.
“There’s never been a project that hit me so personally as ‘Hair Love.’ Living with black hair my whole life, growing up in Texas,” said Toliver, whose company picked up the short last March. “There were so many layers to the project that really just spoke to me personally. And I was like, ‘It has to get done.’ ”
“Hair Love” was also a side project for Cherry, a former NFL player, who was then working as an exec at Jordan Peele’s production company Monkeypaw. (Peele is credited as a co-executive producer on the short). But “Hair Love” was Cherry’s first major animation project.
The story features echoes of his early days in filmmaking: The short’s emotional ending reveals why Zuri’s mother was unavailable to do her hair, a tear-jerker plot twist that was inspired by Cherry’s days as a music video director.
“I always try to think of twist endings. You want to try to keep people entertained and kind of take them on a roller coaster of emotion,” he said. “I just always had the ending in mind.”
On Monday, Cherry shared side-by-side photos of his hair — short in one image, from when he was promoting his Kickstarter campaign, and grazing his shoulders in a recent photo. “That’s how long animation takes,” he joked. But he admits “the timeline is insane and everything that’s happened has been really crazy when you reflect back on it.”
He has heard from dads who feel “seen” after watching “Hair Love.” He’s received photos of little girls watching the short with rapt attention — and usually not for the first time. “They really see themselves in it,” he said. Older supporters of the film have told him they wished they had something like it when they were growing up.
In that way, the Oscar nomination feels especially poignant in yet another year in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been criticized for overlooking actors and artists of color.
Ultimately, “it’s just a numbers game, and you just have to continue doing the work,” Cherry said. “If you focus on how you’re affecting the culture and you’re affecting change, the awards and things like that will come in. Even if they don’t come, you’re still doing great work.”
Cherry knows “Hair Love” can have real-life implications for black children struggling to love their hair amid enduring white standards of beauty. In recent weeks, a Texas teen named DeAndre Arnold made news after being warned that he could not walk in his high school graduation unless he agreed to cut his shoulder-length dreadlocks. But he’ll be in a different kind of spotlight soon: The short’s team, including Cherry and producers Gabrielle Union and her NBA player husband, Dwyane Wade, invited Arnold to attend the Oscars ceremony with them on Sunday.