If you’re heading to theaters for The Angry Birds Movie 2, you’ll be treated to a beautifully touching animated short before the feature called Hair Love, which centers on an African-American father who learns how to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. Marking as one of the most successful crowdfunded projects to date, this collaborative effort between 5,000 patrons and an extensive amount of Black artists in the animation industry is an emotional achievement of Black representation which showcases the positive loving dynamic in Black families.
The story starts with a young girl named Zuri attempting to do her own hair in the absence of her hair vlogger mom Angela (voiced by Insecure’s Issa Rae). Immediately after her failed attempt, her father Stephen enters the bathroom to find her huge fro in a puffy mess, so he takes it upon himself to do the unspeakable: do his daughter’s hair. Intimidated by the shelf of products, he suggests every low-lift option, from insisting on a hat to throwing her hair up in a hair tie and calling it a day, Stephen tries his best; one of the most encouraging relationships a Black girl has is their hair, the relationship that introduces them to self love. Once he finally succeeds through the guidance of his wife’s video, Stephen takes Zuri to see her mom, who is being hospitalized for cancer treatment. Angela is despondent over losing all her own hair, but Zuri shows her a crayon-colored portrait of her wearing a crown over her hairless head while Stephen surprises her with a bouquet of flowers — and the accomplishment of her daughter’s hair.
In recent years, there has been a surge of animated shorts made from underrepresented animators who have used their own stories to create powerful new stories. Before Hair Love, there was In A Heartbeat, which got its start from a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017. It centered on a closeted boy whose heart literally pops out of his chest over an attraction to another boy, a means to universalize gay romance. It immediately became a viral hit; as of today, the short has over 40 million views on YouTube. Just last year, Bao, about a Chinese-Canadian mom and a bun that comes to life, ran before Incredibles 2 in theaters. Made by Chinese-Canadian Pixar animator Domee Shi, the short went on to win the Academy Award for best animated short in a category full of nominees with diverse and culturally profound stories, such as Weekends, made by Canadian animator Trevor Jimenez which told his story of growing up as a child of divorce.
Hair Love is the latest of these films. In July 2017, former NFL wide receiver-turned-producer, writer, and director Matthew A. Cherry (who executive produced BlacKkKlansman)posted a campaign on Kickstarter for the production of an animated short film focused on the relationships between African-American fathers and daughters. With the initial concept in mind for several years, Cherry’s motivation to eventually make Hair Love came from watching viral videos of Black fathers attempting, and sometimes succeeding, at doing their daughters’ hair, a dynamic in Black family culture that goes unrepresented in the media. After the campaign was launched, it went viral, making the rounds on social media. In less than a month, the project made over $280,000 from nearly 5,000 backers on a pledged goal of $75,000, becoming the number one-funded short film campaign in Kickstarter history.
After the success of the Kickstarter, some of the most iconic Black animation artists became attached to the project. Besides Cherry as the writer and a director, there’s Everett Downing, an animator who worked on a number of Pixar films, and Bruce W. Smith, one of the pioneers of animated storytelling and creator of the Disney Channel series The Proud Family. One of the people with the short since day one was Peter Ramsey, a director on the recent Academy Award-winning film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Before that film, Ramsey became the first African-American to helm a big budget animated feature, Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians. Alongside executive producing with Ramsey was Frank E. Abney III, an animator at Pixar who worked on a slew of their recent features including Coco and Toy Story 4. Jordan Peele, Yara Shahidi, Gabrielle Union, and Dwayne Wade are just a few of the recognizable names that backed the project as well.
During production, the senior vice president of development at Sony Pictures Animation Karen Toliver came onboard Hair Love as a producer, which led to the studio acquiring the project for distribution in theaters. It was a fitting move: Sony was coming off the critical success of Into the Spider-Verse, which made many people of color, especially Black children, feel represented through new Spider-hero Miles Morales. “In the past year, it has been very clear that audiences have been yearning to see fresh stories that are universal and culturally authentic,” Kristine Belson, President of Sony Pictures Animation told Deadline.
Initially envisioned in the Kickstarter was a picture book adaptation of Hair Love. Published by Kokila Books/Penguin Random House, the book was written by Cherry and illustrated by Vashti Harrison, best known for her New York Times bestseller Little Dreamers: Visionary Women around the World, and who is releasing Sulwe, a new storybook written by Lupita Nyong’o, scheduled for release this fall.
“Often when you hear stories about black fathers, there’s this misconception that we are not involved,” Cherry said in an interview with The St. Louis American. “And there was an article I read recently that actually showed that African Americans are actually the most involved in our kids’ lives. I just wanted to represent that in book form.”
The book was received positively that translated seamlessly into its animated short form. The painted illustration heightens the warm interactions between the father and his daughter, where she happily embraces her own hair thanks to her father’s efforts. Issa Rae — who promotes self love through hair — lends her calming voice to a key emotional role, her character’s absence encouraging Stephen and Zuri to bond. Hair Love tugs at your heartstrings with its promotion of self love, no matter what style of hair you have.
As someone with two younger sisters of their own, I’ve often witnessed my dad doing my sister’s hair as we were growing up. Before they were able to do their own hair or even each other’s, my dad would be the one who spent hours either styling their hair straight or tying them up in a bun. Directors Cherry, Smith, and Downing captures the evocative moments where the devoted Black father does everything in their power to encourage their daughters to love their distinctive hair, bringing a significant piece of Black culture to the forefront. It’s a tear jerker that’s as emotionally profound as a Pixar short, and even better than the feature that comes after it.
Written by: Rendy Jones