Back in 2016, Matthew A. Cherry came across a photo online that he couldn't shake.
"There sat an Afro-Latino dad with his daughter on his lap," he remembers. "He had a small Afro and the daughter had two Afro puffs. He was diligently working on his computer and she was just looking up at him with so much joy and affection."
At this point, Cherry had retired from the NFL and was nine years into his career as a filmmaker. After a "lightweight attempt" at gathering a team to make a movie based on the photo he'd seen, Cherry let it go. A year later, it resurfaced.
"I kept coming across these viral videos of African-American dads doing their daughters' hair. And I thought, 'Wow, this is a sign,'" he says. "Maybe there’s something here after all."
For Cherry, it was more than the videos just being adorable; they were showing Black men in a way in which they were rarely depicted. "Despite not being a father myself, I wanted to help normalize that. It was really about representing this new age, this modern family that circumvents the gender norms that have been in place since the beginning of time."
That's when set out to make what would become his Oscar-nominated short film, Hair Love.
In high school, Cherry excelled at sports. "I was a three-sport athlete in high school. But I was also part of the AV club." It’s no wonder, then, that his favorite movies range from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to Remember the Titans. But he always had a soft spot for animation. "You could tell so much time and attention to detail is put into the storytelling," he says.
He laughs as he recalled the countless times he would rent Winnie the Pooh from the video store. "I made my dad rent this movie so much to the point that they just gave it to him. It was never in stock; I always had it." But he rarely found himself represented onscreen.
"Over a hundred years of cinema, I only remember three animated movies that featured Black protagonists in major roles: Bebe's Kids in the '90s, Princess and the Frog in the late 2000s and Dreamworks' Home." He wanted an opportunity "to showcase a slice of life in Black American culture that felt specific, but also very universal."
After playing football for the University of Akron and later professionally for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and Baltimore Ravens, Cherry trained to be a production assistant as part of a nonprofit program called Streetlights. In 2007, he worked on the set of Girlfriend and the following year, on Hero.
"I was seeing a lot of Black directors operating at a major level, people like Debbie Allen and Anthony Hemingway. At that time, to see a black director doing something like Hero," he explains. "It made me go, "Wow, people that look like me can do this.'"
As it turns out, after four years in the NFL, Cherry saw a lot of parallels between football and filmmaking. "In football, so much has to happen for a great play to happen," he notes. "Everybody has to do their job perfectly, and if one person messes up, it messes up the entire play, no matter what you’ve done as an individual."
The same goes for making a movie. "You could have a perfect take, the acting, the lights could be right. But if the shot is out of focus, you can't use that take."
With Hair Love, Cherry didn't want to waste his team's time on something that wasn’t great. He needed to get everyone on board with one vision. With the idea for Hair Love developed, Cherry started a Kickstarter campaign and asked director Peter Ramsey (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and animator Frank Abney (Toy Story 4) to executive produce. The campaign ultimately went viral, raising $300,000.
Producer Karen Toliver took note of the project while she was working in development at Fox Animation. "It really spoke to me as an African-American woman, just dealing with hair my whole life," she says. "It was important to me to help them get it made."
I don't want to just make any old Black movie. I want to make great movies. I want to make movies that people remember.
Growing up in Dallas, Toliver was an artsy kid with scientist parents. "Hollywood felt worlds away,” she recalls. She recalled attending a panel with filmmakers and studio execs back then, one of whom told her not to go to Hollywood because "there are too many people out there."
"You never forget those people who put you in a box," Toliver says. "I just wanted to show them."
She took an unpaid internship on Ring of the Musketeers, with David Hasselhoff and Cheech Marin. "By the end, I was post-production coordinator and started getting paid," she said. "I was the last person standing, and it proved that if you’re hardworking and dedicated, you'll make it."
When Toliver arrived in L.A., "It was a time when, if we got an opportunity to do a low-budget movie, it was the worst idea you could have possibly come up with." So she amended her goal. "I don't want to just make any old Black movie," she told herself. "I want to make great movies. I want to make movies that people remember." That's when she found her way to Disney and to animation.
When Cherry first came in to meet with Toliver, he told her, "I want this to be Oscar-worthy."
The team took those words to heart. They brought on Pixar veteran Stacey Newton, story artist-turned-director Everett Downing and Bruce Smith, who created The Proud Family. "Building the team was just about trying to support Cherry's vision and making sure we got it on the screen with the amount of money we had," Toliver says.
They spent nights and weekends on Hair Love until Sony, where Toliver is now EVP of Creative, brought the film in-house. The studio had it open for Angry Birds 2 in theaters. Since then, "It's been a roller coaster," says Cherry. "I don't think any of us thought that we would be here at this point when we started working on it. We’re constantly reminding each other to just live in the moment and to enjoy it."
In January, Issa Rae, who voices a character in Hair Love, joined John Cho to announce the Oscar nominations live. "It sounded like she got a little excited when she said our names. They didn't show her face, though. We'll never know," Cherry said, laughing. "It just felt like a very full-circle moment."
"When we heard Issa call out Hair Love," Toliver adds, "I blacked out after that. It's all been a crazy ride."
But it's also just the beginning. "We need to continue with the route of diversity and getting more people like myself in the room green-lighting and supporting these movies," Toliver points out. "We've seen at the box office that people want to hear these voices.
Cherry echoes the sentiment. "I just want the film industry to be more reflective of the world in general, from agents to managers to executives to below-the-line crew to above-the-line crew," he says. "I would love to see representation on every level because I think the world is better when people are able to see themselves."
Watch Hair Love below.
By Nadine Zylberberg