Sony Executive Karen Rupert Toliver and producer Matthew A. Cherry accept the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film on Feb. 9 at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Troy Harvey)
Sony Executive Karen Rupert Toliver and producer Matthew A. Cherry accept the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film on Feb. 9 at the 92nd Annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Troy Harvey)

Matthew A. Cherry’s “Hair Love” Oscar win for Best Animated Short Film on Sunday serves as a victory for African Americans’ unencumbered expression of their “natural hair.”

Cherry’s film features a young father who, in his wife’s absence, does their daughter’s hair for the very first time. He wears his own hair in locs while his child’s hair remains untouched by chemicals — something Cherry suggested as intentional when he spoke to the Academy Award audience.

“‘Hair Love’ was done because we wanted to see more representation in animation,” he said. “We wanted to normalize Black hair.”

Cherry and producer Karen Rupert Toliver would be accompanied by co-directors Bruce A. Smith and Everett Downing Jr., along with DeAndre Arnold, 18, who made national headlines after Barbers Hill High School near Houston banned him from his graduation for not cutting his locs.

New Jersey witnessed a similar case in 2018 when wrestler Andrew Johnson had his locs forcibly cut off before a match.

“There’s a very important issue that’s out there; it’s the CROWN [Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair] Act and, if we can help to get this passed in all 50 states, it will help [prevent situations] like DeAndre’s from happening again,” Cherry said.

Last year, California became the first to pass the bill into law, ending workplace and school discrimination against African Americans who wear locs or other natural hairstyles. Both New York and New Jersey have since followed suit with the legislation’s further pending in 22 other states.

Sen. and former presidential candidate Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana introduced the CROWN Act in Congress in December. The House bill has 41 co-sponsors but the corresponding Senate bill has just six. All 47 members of Congress who support it are Democrats.

Dove, the personal care brand owned by Unilever, has adopted the CROWN Act as a corporate cause. It used the “Hair Love” Oscar moment to promote a petition on Twitter to end hair discrimination nationwide. The National Urban League and Color of Change have also come aboard as supporters.

“I think we have such a complicated relationship with our hair and I think the more projects that come out that just normalize us loving it as it is, as it grows out of our head, the better,” said Cherry who funded “Hair Love” through a Kickstarter campaign that exceeded $200,000. He has also turned it into an illustrated children’s book which quickly became a New York Times bestseller.

Smith, the co-director whose credits include “The Proud Family,” said he had a personal reason for pouring himself into the “Hair Love” project.

“Listen, I have a daughter, and I certainly had those lost days of trying to figure out how to do her hair and stuff like that, so I definitely related to the material right away,” he said.

“I’ve never been able to do anything as personal,” said Rupert Toliver, who also wears her hair in locs. “It really started to hit me recently about how proud I am.”

Rupert Toliver serves as executive vice president of creatives at Sony Pictures Animation, which ran “Hair Love” at the beginning of its animated feature film “The Angry Birds Movie 2” in August.

Issa Rae provided the sole voiceover for “Hair Love.” Other producers include Jordan Peele, Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade and Peter Ramsey, who won the Oscar last year for Best Animated Feature as co-director of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

Ramsey summed up Cherry’s impact with “Hair Love” at the awards.

“It was based on something real, and he brought it to life,” he said. “Now it’s resonating with people all over the world.”

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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