By Charles Solomon,
The charming animated short “Hair Love,” about a self-possessed African-American girl and her loving if slightly overwhelmed father, is the result of some unusual pairings. It’s an indie distributed by a major studio. And it was written by an ex-N.F.L. player who doesn’t have children and who directed in collaboration with veteran animators who do.
On a special morning, Zuri, who has a winning smile and an exuberant mop of curls, wants to put her hair in a complex arrangement of braids, puffs and twists. Her millennial father, sporting dreads and a small tattoo, has never tried to style her locks. He watches a vlogger explain the necessary steps, then tackles a daunting array of products, combs and brushes to fulfill his daughter’s wish.
“Hair Love,” which is showing with Sony’s “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” is the brainchild of Matthew A. Cherry, who spent three seasons as a wide receiver on various N.F.L. squads before turning to filmmaking. (His directing credits include episodes of “The Last O.G.” and other shows.) He’s not a father himself, but “I have a lot of friends who are young fathers,” he said in an interview. He added that, concerned as he was about the lack of representation in animation, “I wanted to see a young black family in the animated world.”
“Hair Love” offers the kind of inclusion audiences and others have been calling for in Hollywood. It joins a small but growing body of animated shorts in which artists from underrepresented communities tell specific stories onscreen with an honesty that makes them universal. Sanjay Patel’s Oscar-nominated “Sanjay’s Super Team” (2015) explored the conflict between an immigrant Indian father and his American-born son; Domee Shi won an Oscar for “Bao” (2018), in which a doting Chinese mother tries to keep her son from growing up.
With “Hair Love,” Cherry hoped to combat negative images. “Black fathers get one of the worst raps in terms of stereotypes — we’re deadbeats, we’re not around,” he said. “The people I know are extremely involved in their kids’ lives.”
Financed by a Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $300,000, “Hair Love” attracted two noted African-American directors: Bruce Smith, the creator of “The Proud Family,” the award-winning 2001-5 animated show; and the veteran Pixar animator Everett Downing Jr., whose credits include “Brave” and “Up.”
“I donated to the Kickstarter campaign the first week,” Downing said. “I felt a connection to the material.” He wound up joining the production through a Sony Pictures Animation executive who was serving as a producer of “Hair Love” in her spare time.
For Smith, the film “offered the chance to create subtleties and specificities that you normally don’t get in African-American animated characters.”
Downing added, “Bruce is a dad, I’m a dad: We’re black dads bringing that experience onto the screen. The character’s not trying to be a badass or a clown, he’s sharing a moment with his family.”
The filmmakers present the story almost entirely in mime. Zuriand her dad communicate through expressions and body language. The animation tells the story; there’s no need for words beyond that of the vlogger (voiced by Issa Rae of “Insecure”).
“Matthew’s story was very sincere, so we wanted a specificity in how the characters acted vs. the stereotypes we were trying to avoid,” Smith said. “There’s a scene where the dad sees his daughter’s tried — unsuccessfully — to style her own hair. He clasps his hands, looks forward and starts thinking, then he looks at his watch: That was Matthew Cherry in a meeting, thinking about what he wanted to do in that shot, then looking at his watch, ‘O.K., I’ve got to be somewhere.’ I told the animators, ‘You see what Matthew did? That’s what you do!’ I think those moments of spontaneity really come across in the film.”
It’s unusual for a studio to distribute an independent short, but the Sony executive, Karen Rupert Toliver, who was working on “Hair Love” as a side project, said that “to see the studio rally behind Matthew’s story and help him bring it to a wide audience on the big screen has been an inspiration.”
For Cherry, “this project has been the craziest thing I’ve ever been a part of, including playing professional football. Sony took a liking to it early on, and they’ve been really supportive from Day 1.”
He hopes to continue the story of Zuri and her dad, which has already been adapted into a children’s book. “We turned in the finished film at the very last possible minute,” he said. “Right now, we’re enjoying the response to it. When things settle down, we’ll start thinking about how we can continue the story.”
Original article was published here.