Oscars 2020: the true story behind Hair Love, the animated short film that celebrates natural hair and black fathers

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Elena Chabo
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A celebration of afro hair and black fathers,  animated short film Hair Love has 10M views in one month, following the most successful crowd-funding campaign for a short film that Kickstarter has ever seen. Now, the team behind the film just picked up an Oscar for their work. 

UPDATED ON 10 February 2020: Hair Love, created by Matthew Cherry (Black Kkklansman), tells the story of a little African American girl called Zuri and her father Stephen as he attempts to do Zuri’s hair, for the very first time. Released 5 December, the short film wracked up 10M views in its first month, but the excitement started way before the project even came off the page.

Now, the film has taken home an Oscar at the 2020 Academy Awards in the category of Best Animated Short.

“We wanted to normalise black hair,” Cherry said in his acceptance speech. “I wanted to see a young black family in animation.” 

Added his co-creator Karen Rupert Toliver: “Representation matters. Especially in animation.”  

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The film’s premise, along with New York Times bestselling illustrator Vashti Harrison’s characters, made up the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the film. It raised $284,058 (£214,868). The most any short film project, animated or otherwise, has ever raised on the site. But why were people so invested in a six minute short they hadn’t even seen yet?

You see, this is about so much more than a funny moment where a hapless dad realises children’s hairdressing may be harder than mom makes it look.

“Through this project, it is my hope that we can show a positive image of black fathers and their daughters, while encouraging natural hair and self-love throughout the world through the animated space,” said producer and co-director Cherry, on the project’s Kickstarter page.

Oscars 2020: Hair Love creators Matthew A Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver celebrate their Oscar win.

Sony Pictures Animation picked up the film in March 2019 with a deal and roll out plan. Issa Rae came on board as a voice actor and producers on the project include Gabrielle Union, Jordan Peele, Dwyane Wade, and Gabourey Sidibe. The film was nominated at the 2020 Academy Awards in the category of Best Animated Short and ended up taking home the prize. 

It ran in cinemas during screenings of The Angry Birds Movie 2 late in 2019, finally arriving on YouTube 5 December. You can watch the film at the bottom of this article, but in the meantime let’s breakdown why the premise meant so much to so many before the film had even been made:

A spotlight on black fathers

The film was inspired by the relationships his friends have with their children and the viral videos of black fathers with their children, Cherry told LA’s News One Now.

 “I just think it was really important to shine a light on black fathers doing domestic things with their kids because I think mainstream media would lead you to believe that [black] fathers aren’t a part of their kids’ lives,” he said.

 Cherry went on to suggest that the reason a lot of these videos have gone viral is because we aren’t used to seeing portrayals of black fathers interacting with their kids in this way. He wanted to show black fathers with their children not just to connect with those it reflects but for wider audiences too.

“As a film maker, being able to normalise and show our [black men’s] humanity is huge thing and I feel like the more humanised we are in just even small domestic things, I think the better our perception will be to people that don’t necessarily interact with us on a regular basis.” 

Representation in animation

The film also offers much needed diversity in animation. Animation is a world we are far more likely to see an animal talking than a person of colour, let alone taking on a lead role. There have been marginal improvements over time but the numbers are still shocking.

A 1972 study for Action for Children’s Television found that over 60% of the TV shows in their sample had no racial minority characters at all. In a 1983 study, Boston University communications professor F. Earle Barcu, analysed over 1,100 characters in 20 children’s television programs, only 42 were black. And 2018 research from Children’s Television Project (CTV) at Tufts University, sampled 1,500 characters, black characters accounted for 5.6% (that’s 84, out of 1500). 

It should go without saying, by this point, that representation matters. Indeed numerous studies have explored the impact of representation on screen – not just in terms of numbers, but in the portrayal of characters of ethnic minority, too (they are often stereotyped, side-lined or playing villains). 

A 2004 study by the University of Michigan, found that when black adolescents strongly identified with black characters it predicted higher performance self-esteem, appearance self-esteem, and total self-esteem. Strong identification with white characters was a predictor for lower self-esteem in every sub dimension. 

This isn’t just about children not having characters to relate to, black children can relate to white characters, but what impact is not finding heroes that look like them, having on their self-esteem? What are they being taught about what a hero looks like and who we root for, whose lives are worthy of  attention and adventure. 

Hair Love

The final reason this film captured so many hearts before anyone had even seen it, is of course, hair love.  

The ‘Good Hair’ Study was published in 2017 and analysed implicit and explicit attitudes towards black women’s hair. Over 4,000 people took part, and the research found ‘a majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of colour based on their hair.’ Even those who held positive views about afro hair were found to have implicit bias toward it.

Afro hair was rated less professional, sexy/attractive and less beautiful. Black women were found to have high anxiety over their hair and while on average they expressed positive attitudes toward natural afro hair, they too were unconsciously biased against it. That unconscious bias was even found in women who wore their hair natural (did not relax, straighten or wear weave).

The natural hair movement has blossomed on Instagram and YouTube, blogs and events, sharing advice and tips on transitioning to natural hair and caring for it. There is so much celebration of afro hair  and growing visibility. 

The images of beauty we all grow up seeing, even of black women, are straight haired. The natural hair movement is undoing that teaching. 

The movement’s online presence is great for visibility, with influencers and vloggers of every afro hair type and texture, with constant affirmations of its beauty. But the online community isn’t just about showing afro hair it’s about caring for it.

For so long people have been taught that afro hair is something to be dealt with, an issue to be fixed. These videos turn caring and nurturing hair into a labour of love, teaches that your hair is special and wonderful enough to deserve hours of your time and carefully curated products, it teaches how to love hair you’ve been taught you should hate. 

This film doesn’t just see it’s main character sporting her natural hair, it shows her loving it and focuses on the act of taking care of it.

“If a little girl sees this project and she gets more confidence by seeing Zuri and her natural kinky afro, I think that would be a huge thing and I’m just hoping kids move forward with self confidence in their natural hair.” Cherry told One News Now.

Seeing yourself reflected on screen means so much when it’s been so absent. When you have a handful of characters to clutch at that look vaguely like you. This film has connected with so many because it’s telling a story that people see themselves in, in a way that mainstream media doesn’t often acknowledge.

So yes this is a seven minute animation of a man doing his daughters hair, but it hits three very important spots that have made it so special to people. 

It positively reflects the relationships between black fathers and their children when the world wants to assume they aren’t there. We get to see rare animated black characters and what’s more we see them take the lead. And finally it starts at the youngest age with visibility for afro hair, so that this may be the first generation who don’t need to learn that straight isn’t better, or have to transition back to natural hair after years of straightening.  

Images: Sony Animation

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Elena Chabo

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