Black hair is beautiful. Black hair is versatile. But Black hair is prone to racial discrimination and criticism, and underrepresentation in media and the beauty industry makes it difficult for Black boys and girls to see themselves. That’s why last night’s Oscar win for the charming animated short film Hair Love is not only a win for director and writer Matthew A. Cherry and producer Karen Rupert Toliver, but a win for Black hair, Black fathers, and Black creators.
Hair Love follows a young girl named Zuri and her father Stephen. On the day of a big event, Zuri tries to style her own hair by watching her mom’s tutorials (voiced by Issa Rae) online. When she fails miserably, Stephen steps in, but soon realizes the styling process isn’t as simple as he thought.
Inspired by viral videos of fathers styling their daughters’ natural hair, Cherry created Hair Love to depict positive images of Black fathers. “Black fathers get one of the worst raps in terms of stereotypes—we’re deadbeats, we’re not around,” he told The New York Times. “The people I know are extremely involved in their kids’ lives.” So he launched a Kickstarter campaign that surpassed its goal. The film ultimately landed in the hands of Sony Pictures Animation and turned into a book Cherry wrote with illustrator Vashti Harrison. Now, Cherry’s an Oscar-winning director, a feat he predicted back in 2012.
In his acceptance speech for Best Animated Short, Cherry explained why his win was so important. “Hair Love was done because we wanted to see more representation in animation. We want to normalize black hair,” he said. “There is a very important issue that’s out there. It’s The Crown Act, and if we can help this get passed in all 50 states, it’ll help stories like DeAndre Arnold, who’s our special guest tonight, stop happening.”
Arnold is a Texas teen who was suspended from school for wearing locs and told he wouldn’t be able to walk at graduation unless he cut his hair. His story is familiar to the many Black men and women who face discrimination for wearing their natural hair; a report from Dove’s The Crown Coalition found that Black women are 80 percent more likely to change their natural hair to meet societal norms and expectations at their workplace, and 50 percent of Black women are more likely to be sent home from their work, or know a black woman who has been sent home, because of her hairstyle. The Crown Act is a law that prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle or hair texture and has already been passed in California, New Jersey, and New York, with 22 more states currently considering it. “The message of that movie and my message go together so well,” Arnold told Refinery29 ahead of the Oscars. “I think it’s really amazing how they reached out to me and how we can fight this [discrimination] together.”
Cherry’s big win is monumental, but it’s also a stark reminder of the Oscars’ history of shutting out remarkable art created by people of color. #OscarsSoWhite has dominated the conversation around the Academy since 2015, but only one person of color received an acting nomination in 2020. Janelle Monae’s opening number at last night’s ceremony paid tribute to the many films snubbed by the Academy this year—many of which were created by and starred, ding ding ding, people of color—but that felt more like a half-assed apology than changed behavior. These long-deprived voices deserve more than an opening song-and-dance sequence. They deserve trophies, and Hair Love‘s win should be the rule, not the exception.