‘Hair Love’: How Matthew Cherry turned a passion project into an Oscar-nominated film

Four years ago, an NFL star turned filmmaker came across a drawing of a black father sitting with his daughter, who proudly wore two afro puffs.

A year after that, he found himself watching viral videos of fathers doing their daughters’ hair posted all over social media.

A history-making Kickstarter campaign, book release, and movie deal with Sony Animation later, Matthew Cherry is now an Oscar-nominated filmmaker for his short film “Hair Love.”

A film that tells the story of a father who learns how to do his daughter’s hair for the first time, “Hair Love” tugs at the heart strings for those who have quite a personal relationship with the hair — some days with joy, other days with pride and other days, frustration. Through the beautiful imagery and detailed sound, Cherry’s film effectively communicates how hair is more than just hair.

“Hair is such an intimate thing, especially if somebody is doing your hair,” Cherry told “Good Morning America.” “Whether you’re sitting between their legs or are sitting in a chair, you’re kind of at their mercy. Yet still, it feels relaxing.”

The Process

While the film is a more than a reason to celebrate, considering its nomination for an Academy Award, Cherry’s story on the creation of this film is a compelling tale of how timing is always right.

Using Kickstarter campaigns for his previous films, “The Last Fall” and “9 Rides,” Cherry wasn’t new to this hustle.

“I had done two Kickstarter campaigns prior for two of my independent feature films; both situations were a struggle,” Cherry stated. “It was literally me reaching out to childhood friends I hadn’t spoken to in 20 years. Nothing was coming in from people that didn’t know me personally, and it was a grind.”

Thinking strategically, he took what he learned from past experiences, and to perfect his tactic, he decided to use what was right in front of him: his social media presence.

“I was very conscious that if I wanted to support a bigger Kickstarter campaign like this, I’m going to have to really get my social media following up,” Cherry explained. “Building up your following is free, and ironically enough, it helped me learn how to tell sustained ideas in under 280 characters on a daily basis.”

Launching the campaign on a Monday, “Hair Love”‘s initial Kickstarter campaign goal was fully funded by that following Friday. After continuing to push the threshold to see just how much he could raise to fund the film, Cherry stressed the importance of collaboration with Sony Animation and Karen Toliver, Executive Vice President of Creative at Sony Animation who worked as a producer on the film, to bring “Hair Love” to the big screen.

“All we needed was a little help getting it over the finish line, and with Karen on our team, we were able to do that,” Cherry explained. “Had I just taken the script to Sony from the beginning without the audience, funding, or plan, they probably would have laughed me out of the room.”

Toliver, who mainly works on the executive side, said this was her first time in a producing role for a film.

“I’ve been in animation as a studio executive for about two decades and got the pleasure of working at these big studios, making big budget movies and loved the process,” Toliver told “Good Morning America.” “But there haven’t been a lot of movies that are specifically depicting us of color, and that was really intriguing to me. As a producer for ‘Hair Love,’ I get to be on the other side and make decisions about what gets made.”

For Cherry, making “Hair Love” an animated film was an intentional choice.

“I go to these animated movies and, often times, you don’t see yourself represented. I can only imagine what little kids feel when they don’t themselves, or they don’t see protagonists that have their same style of hair. It can really do a number on your confidence.”

In addition to the much needed representation that “Hair Love” brought for its audience, the people behind the scenes reflected the story that was told. With three black directors and two black producers, the environment in which “Hair Love” was made was both unique and necessary, Toliver told “Good Morning America.”

‘We’ve already won’

After working hard to find a way for “Hair Love” to qualify for the Oscars, Cherry’s team and Sony were able to screen it before “Angry Birds 2” last summer.

It was like the kind of the perfect timing for us to race to the finish line,” Toliver stated. “It really does represent I think what Sony Animation is all about in terms of diverse storytelling.”

However, the magic isn’t necessarily in the chance to win a fancy award; Cherry already feels like a winner.

“When you see all the pictures of kids in the classroom watching the short and then reading the book, the pictures of dads reading the book to their daughter, young girls pointing at scenes on the screen with joy, we’re already making a change and an impact,” Cherry said with excitement. “I keep getting a response to both the book and the short film from more people who are a little older saying, ‘I wish I had a project like this when I was younger, I may have loved my hair a little sooner.’”

“When you’re getting reactions in real life feedback like that, at the end of the day, regardless of what happens Oscars night, we already won.”

More of these stories

While the success of “Hair Love” was a matter of hard work, collaboration, and the magic of timing, it showed us just how powerful and necessary diverse storytelling is in media and in society, and how the effort to tell these stories comes from all sides of the industry.

“I’m grateful for my role as a studio executive and I just want to see more people like me and more diverse people in these rooms since people relate to things that they understand, right?” Toliver explained. “In the past, there haven’t been enough people like me in the room that understand and connect to these stories on a deeper, personal level. Obviously, we need more filmmakers, storytellers and all that, but we need more buyers, more creative executives, and more people on my side, too.

PHOTO: Matthew A. Cherry poses for a portrait session at the 92nd Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Los Angeles, Jan. 27, 2020.
Chris Pizzello/Invision via AP

Matthew A. Cherry poses for a portrait session at the 92nd Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon in Los Angeles, Jan. 27, 2020. Cherry is nominated for an Oscar for his animated short “Hair Love.”

And for those aspiring filmmakers who have their own “Hair Love” brewing in their journals and waiting for when the time is right, Cherry emphasized the importance of being consistent, diligent, and working with those next to you.

“There have been so many times in my career where, you try not to, but you glance at what everybody else is doing. Look at it for inspiration. But you can’t look at that as a barometer for when it’s going to happen for you,” Cherry exclaimed.

“You have a group of peers right there next to you who are going to grow with you, and in four or five years, one of them may end up being an executive studio, another one may end up being a DP. As you grow, you’ll be able to give each other opportunities as well. If you just focus on your friend group and build up, you’ll make it, and it’ll be even sweeter because you did it with your friends and your people.”

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