Though most of the Oscars went to movies for more mature audiences, Best Animated Short winner Hair Love is a must-see for audiences of all ages. But what’s even better about this sweet story of a Black father learning how to style his daughter’s hair is that it’s also available in book form.
Now, this is not a case of director-writer Matthew A. Cherry basing his cartoon on a book that already existed. In fact, it was while he was developing his Kickstarter-funded idea into a movie that he was also approached to make it into a book.
Cherry got the idea for his movie after sharing videos of Black men styling their daughters’ hair and watching the clips go viral. He realized that some viewers were surprised to see these dads being so involved in their kids’ lives.
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“Obviously the videos were cute, but we came to find out that people didn’t really see Black men doing stuff like this,” Cherry told Deadline. “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. We just really wanted to represent for that modern-day father who is more involved, and really will do whatever for their kid.”
He enlisted the help of Vashti Harrison, an illustrator, writer and filmmaker, to create the characters of Stephen, the father, his daughter Zuri, and her hair, which Harrison said is kind of its own character in the story. The Kickstarter soared past their $75,000 goal and reached $300,000, a record for short film projects on the site. It certainly helped that Jordan Peele, Yara Shahidi, Gabourey Sidibe, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union were among the people who saw this story’s potential and signed on as producers. Issa Rae eventually became the voice of the movie’s hair vlogger.
When it came time to make Hair Love the book, it must have helped to have Harrison signed on to illustrate. She’s the writer and illustrator of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History and Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World. She’s also the illustrator of last year’s Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o.
“We worked really hard at finding Zuri’s hair texture,” Harrison says in a video about the book made by publisher Penguin Random House. “And making sure it didn’t feel a little too soft. It felt kinky and coily, definitely not something I saw in books as a kid.”
The book quickly became a New York Times bestseller when it hit shelves last spring. Now, Oscar in hand, Cherry is still working towards solving the bigger issue at the heart of the book and movie. He and co-producer Karen Toliver brought a guest to the show last night, De’Andre Arnold. He’s the 18-year-old who has become something of a celebrity since his Texas high school suspended him for wearing his hair in long dreadlocks.
“Hair Love was done because we wanted to see more representation in animation, and we wanted to normalize Black hair,” Cherry said in his acceptance speech. “There’s a very important issue out there, it’s the CROWN Act, and if we can help get this passed in all 50 states it will help stories like De’Andre Arnold’s, who’s our special guest tonight, stop happening.”
CROWN stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” and it’s a movement to put hair texture and protective styles into the Fair Employment and Housing Act and state education codes, so that people will no longer be fired or suspended for how they wear their hair.
You can watch Hair Story in full on YouTube here: