Centering his short on an African American father, as he confronts the intimidating task of doing his daughter’s hair for the first time, Cherry noticed in 2016 a number of viral videos of African American fathers doing the same, and the incredible response these posts got. “I really like to share family-friendly content when I can, especially if it’s Black families interacting and loving and living. I really believe in just normalizing us, and for whatever reason, every time I would post a video of moms interacting with their kids or doing their hair, it would do okay,” he explains. “But every time there was a Black father interacting with their daughter, it would always go so much more viral. We’re talking 100,000 likes, retweets, just beyond anything showing mothers interacting with their kids.”
For Cherry, this reaction felt like a double-edged sword. “Obviously the videos were cute, but we came to find out that people didn’t really see Black men doing stuff like this. It felt like an anomaly to a lot of people. For me, I’m not a father yet, but I have a lot of friends that are fathers that would literally do whatever for their kids—paint the nails, do a tea party, do their hair, whatever needs to be done,” the director says. “We just really wanted to represent for that modern-day father who is more involved, and really will do whatever for their kid.”
Heading into his first animated project, Cherry leaned heavily on the experience of other great artists he brought onto the project—including co-directors Bruce Smith and Everett Downing, and character designer Vashti Harrison. Creating a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the project, the director was able to crowdsource around $300,000—the most any short film campaign on the crowdfunding platform has ever raised. Backers of the short included a long list of big names, including Jordan Peele, Yara Shahidi, Gabourey Sidibe, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union, among others.
Was this result a surprise to Cherry? “Here’s the thing: Yes and no. No, just because you never know. Nothing’s a guarantee. But the secret weapon really was social media, having posted three or four of these videos, and seeing them all do almost a hundred thousand impressions on social media, just knowing that there was an appetite for people to see this,” he reflects. “For me, I always figured that if we were able to really capture a story with a lot of heart, but also with a lot of authenticity—something that was universal, that fathers and daughters and wives and sons of all ages and races could relate to—that it would really be big.”
Around the time of Cherry’s Kickstarter triumph, producer Karen Rupert Toliver came aboard the film. Now the Executive Vice President of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation, Toliver was an executive at Fox when she first heard about the project. “When they got the Kickstarter going, I guess I was one of the few people in animation of color that they knew, and luckily, we just started talking about it. At the time, I’d never done anything with short content before, and at first, I didn’t think I could really help them,” Toliver admits. “I was like, ‘Look, I will give you any resource. I’ll introduce you to whoever I can. This should get made—it’s so positive.’ Then, as I was shifting jobs and coming over to Sony, I realized I could come on as a producer, almost as a hobby.”
For Toliver, the draw of the project was that it was, in a number of respects, unlike any film she’d made before. “I’d never been able to work on something so personal, with a black family, at all, so that was immediately exciting,” she says. “After years of making content that I’ve loved, usually [being] the only black person on the room, this was an opportunity to work on something personal with three black directors, another black producer. It was just a life-changing experience to be able to help put this together.”
When word got around about Hair Love, Cherry was approached with an offer to turn it into a book. Developing his short and a children’s picture book on parallel tracks, in the same visual style, the director would ultimately see his latter effort become a New York Times bestseller.
Initially, Cherry envisioned making the short film in CG. “I think [that] was just me being newer to animation. But then when you raise a decent amount of money online, but not millions of dollars, you quickly find out that the hair on Moana looked so amazing because they literally put millions of dollars and years into it,” he notes. Without either luxury at his disposal, and desiring to depict Black hair with the utmost accuracy, Cherry ultimately turned to the medium of 2D animation, with which he would be able to bring his vision to life on a relatively low budget.
For Cherry and Toliver, it was important to go toe-to-toe with the best animated shorts out there, with the aesthetic of Hair Love. “Our third producing partner was Stacey Newton, who had come from Pixar, and she knew the high level quality, so we all put our heads together. We loved the painterly look of many other shorts that had been out there, be it Feast or Paperman, and we really wanted that quality to be there,” Toliver says. “So, we took a lot of time doing research, just setting the goal there.”
For Cherry, who spearheaded production on nights and weekends, the biggest learning curve that came with making his first animated short was coming to understand the workflow of a new medium. “I’ve done two independent films, I’ve done low-budget music videos, so I’m used to, you work with what you’ve got. If it’s a room and the wall’s not the color you want, you’ve got to make it work. And with animation, it’s like you’re building the world from scratch, so every single thing has to have intention. That was my first time ever having to be so specific about intention with ever single part of a production,” he shares. “But then also, I love animation now specifically because of the workflow—the fact that you get to make the movie over and over again, before you go into production, making sure that the story makes sense and is connecting with people.”
Seeing his short screen in theaters alongside The Angry Birds Movie 2 before earning an Oscar nomination, Cherry says the entire journey with Hair Love has been unreal. “I think most filmmakers and artists, when you’re doing a new project, you always go into it within an intention,” he reflects. “In a perfect world, you want to change lives, and you want to affect change, and for us, that intention really has been there since day one.”
From Toliver’s perspective, the power of the short lies in its defiance of negative stereotypes, with regard to young Black men. Ultimately, the Academy’s embrace of Hair Love powerfully magnifies the message or worldview with which it was made. “It’s still obviously a prevalent problem, just the negative stereotypes with young black men in the news,” the producer says. “I’ve got two boys that are going to be coming out in the world, so for me I think the positiveness of it is really to show a young black man doing things that people don’t see in the world, as a way to literally protect our black men out in the world.”
Looking to the future, Cherry hopes to continue to work in both live-action and animation. His next effort, an episode of ABC’s Black-ish, will air the week of the Oscars on ABC. “Life’s been really good. I’ve had an opportunity to work in a lot of different spaces,” he says, “and I really want to live in both worlds.”