Matthew A. Cherry, 38, is a former NFL player and, if he scoops up an Oscar for his film Hair Love on Feb. 9, he will have two big things in common with the late Kobe Bryant. In 2018, the former NBA star – who tragically died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 at the age of 41 – became the first athlete to win an Academy Award, and the first black man to win the prestigious hardware for an animated short. The significance is not lost on Matthew, whose 6:47 minute film about an African American dad helping to style his little girl’s hair has been nominated this year. “I feel the responsibility,” he tells HollywoodLife EXCLUSIVELY. “Kobe was a great man.”
“He was really settling into his second act of his life, being a father to his beautiful children, being a husband, and also being a storyteller,” Matthew added in reference to the retired basketball player whose animated short, Dear Basketball made him an Oscar winner. “I’ve heard that he had a lot of different things in the works, be that books and movies and short films as well, and he was really looking forward to doing that. And so to be the second former athlete to be nominated for an Oscar – in the same category no less – it’s a great responsibility. I really want to win now, so we can get the chance to give our speech and be able to shout him out and just kind of let them know how much he means to us all on the biggest night of Hollywood.”
The fact that Hair Love is about a black father styling his little girl’s hair is even more poignant in hindsight, given that Kobe – who was a proud “girl dad” of four – died alongside his daughter Gianna, 13, and seven other victims. The animated short won an army of fans long before it became a film, thanks to a 2017 Kickstarter campaign that the director/writer launched to have it made. The story features little Zuri who’s struggling to style her thick mane of natural hair. She scrolls through online videos for tips but fails miserably as she tries to pull off an elaborate look. Her horrified dad tries to navigate the plethora of products and tools at their fingertips, but eventually [spoiler alert] they figure it out together.
“Hair Love really [was] inspired by a lot of these viral videos of black fathers that were doing their daughters’ hair,” Matthew says. “I thought that it was a good opportunity to showcase the black family in animation. Back when we did Hair Love on Kickstarter in 2017, there were only about three movies in the history of animation that featured black protagonists. Those were The Princess and the Frog, Bebe’s Kids and Home. And it just felt like a really great opportunity also to try to normalize black hair. It seems like every week there’s a news story of a kid getting suspended from school because of their natural hairstyle, how it grows out of their head…”
That little black girls across America have embraced the film is apparent from clips that their parents have posted on social media of them looking wide-eyed at the film, which is also a New York Times bestselling book. “I think the beautiful thing is that we’re never going to really know the true impact for probably five or 10 years or so. But people will come up to us all the time, different parents [saying] they wish they would have had something like this when they were kids.” Hair Love is available on YouTube.