There's no denying the importance of representation in media, or that the need for it persists, which is why the beautifully inclusive and touching short film Hair Love is getting so much buzz. The Oscar-winning animated short explores the relationship between African-American girl Zuri and her father as they work together to style her natural hair. Hair Love is moving for a variety of reasons, but not least of which is the inspiration that came from its creators' own families.
Directed by former NFL player Matthew A. Cherry, and veteran animated film directors Bruce W. Smith and Everett Downing, Jr., the short is the result of a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised nearly $300,000. "The original inspiration was a wave of viral videos that [Cherry] saw of African American dads doing their daughters hair," Downing tells Romper. "Their attempts ultimately failed, but people fell in love with these tender dads that were genuinely trying to help their daughters out. A lot of people found it refreshing to see black fathers displayed this way, which is often contrary to how they’re seen in film and media."
As Zuri's dad battles it out with her hair — attempting to master the style that her mom effortlessly created in the past — the two face complicated emotions and learn to work together toward a common and empowering goal. In the end, Zuri's dad manages to pull it off, and she pulls him into a hug in response. Together, they pick up Zuri's mom at the hospital where she seems to be undergoing cancer treatments with her own head covered in a scarf. But Zuri reassures her mom that even a hairless head is beautiful, adding another layer of meaningful inclusion to the story.
With its many layers, Hair Love offers viewers and readers the sort of inclusion they have been calling out for. Like other hit shorts from underrepresented communities — such as Sanjay Patel’s Oscar-nominated Sanjay’s Super Team of 2015 and Domee Shi's Oscar-winning Bao from 2018 — Hair Love brings experiences to the screen that viewers deserve to see. Among those viewers are Downing's own children, whom he channeled during the creation process.
"For me, I am the father of two girls, and they were very much my inspiration for the relationship," Downing says. "I’ve been in charge of taking care of their hair since they were babies, and I remember how nervous I was when I first tried to style their hair. But I didn’t hesitate to jump on YouTube to research some hair styling videos."
This year, Hair Love won the Oscar for Best Animated Short. Speaking with Variety about the nomination, Cherry explained that the short film allowed his team "to tackle the negative societal stereotypes around natural hair and black fathers, and to normalize the depiction of a loving black family that we know so well and yet have seen so little of in media."
Experts have long been explaining the importance of representation in media, particularly for young viewers like Zuri's real-life counterparts. And that's a big part of why the team wanted to share Hair Love with the world.
"Oh man, there were a few goals that were very important to me," Downing says. "First of all, normalization of black hair. Putting a positive message out there about the beauty of black hair is so important, because there has been so much shame associated with it. My own daughters have told me that they didn’t like their curly hair in the past. Thankfully, now they have a lot of pride about it, and I believe it’s in no small part because of media like this. Media like this makes an impact."
And that impact influenced the ways in which the characters of Hair Love are presented, Downing says. "We also wanted to create a short starring a modern African American family that presented them in a very open and relatable way. Especially the father, black men are not often portrayed like this, and we really wanted to break conventions and expectations with this film."
Along with leading to the film playing in theaters across the country with Angry Birds 2, the Kickstarter campaign also led to a children's book that went on to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Vashti Harrison, the book captures all of the magic of the movie with the added benefit of reading. As the film and book continue to capture the hearts of audiences everywhere, one can only hope that the success will inspire more diverse content for audiences of all ages.