In what many have come to delineate as the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony, the 92nd Annual Academy Awards wasn’t much different this year, but did deliver a distinguished accomplishment worth celebrating in Matthew A. Cherry, the NFL star turned filmmaker who rocked the nation with the “Hair Love” win for Best Animated Short Film.
Cherry had been widely celebrated in the weeks leading up to what’s considered the biggest night in film and television, with supporters globally rallying around him to express the importance of the narrative and the magnitude of the film’s highly-anticipated win. From national morning show segments to a “Hair Love” mural spotted in Accra, Ghana, the impact of the short film has redefined how Black boys and girls all over the world see and love themselves.
Heightening the notoriety, the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) recently honored Cherry with Breakthrough Director of the Year, followed-up by two NAACP Image Award nominations for the show’s upcoming telecast on February 22. These distinctions are worth noting, namely because honoring ourselves should always be a priority.
Karen R. Toliver is the unadulterated producer behind the film. As both a creative and executive vice president at Sony Animation, Toliver says that as a Texas native, it never occurred to her that she would have the freedom to wear her hair “any type of way.” Reconciling her own experience after finding freedom of hair expression in the entertainment industry, Toliver says that “policing Black hair” is “like policing ourselves,” and that when juxtaposed, “freeing Black hair, means freeing ourselves.”
Adding to the film’s significance, the “Hair Love” crew invited Texas teen DeAndre Arnold to be a part of the experience. Recently, Arnold had been suspended by his high school for violating the school’s dress code policy. Scolded for the length of his dreadlocks, Arnold was told that he could not walk with his graduating class because he refused to either cut his hair or continue to wear them in an up-do. It just so happens that Arnold’s story gained national attention, and that what was intended for his misfortune, turned into his purpose. In a public display of appreciation, Cherry and Toliver honored the teen in their acceptance speech for speaking up and standing tall in his cultural convictions on hair.
The win also speaks to a larger initiative, The CROWN Act, legislation initially influenced by Los Angeles High School teen and Ted Talk speaker, Kawika Smith, officially drafted and proposed by California Senator Holly J. Mitchell to prohibit discrimination based on hair style and texture.
In Smith’s TEDxCrenshaw talk, the now senior at an all-male Jesuit high school said the policy showed his school’s “lack of cultural competence” and “signaled” that young Black men had to alter themselves to be accepted at the surface. “Students were being offered four years of corporate work-study experience at the cost of them not showing up as their full selves,” Smith said. “Essentially, these companies were allowed to strip us of our culture and to conform us to these capitalistic and Eurocentric standards of beauty in professionalism. It made me feel like I couldn’t be both Black and educated,” Smith proclaimed.
Swinging into action, Smith says he found himself sharing spaces with Senator Mitchell, who has locks, along with Dr. Angela Davis and Ms. Angela Rye and “began to tell them what was going on and ask for their help.” Today his school’s new policy increased the restriction to three-inch Afros as opposed to one, which Smith calls the “modern-day three-fifth compromise,” saying this change is “just the beginning.” How beautiful is it that “Hair Love” is a much-needed extension and promotion of the initiatives on young people being wrought on grassroot levels? It’s very beautiful, I’d say.
Finally, Cherry dedicated the film to the late Kobe Bryant, both athletes to take away the win for Best Animated Short Film, Bryant for his 2018 short “Dear Basketball.” Sharing in Cherry’s animated and Bryant’s real and sweet depiction of a loving father-daughter relationship, Cherry says this film was “born” out the desire to “flip gender norms” and display Black fatherhood in a different light. “We have a firm belief that representation matters deeply, especially in cartoons,” he said. “This award is dedicated to Kobe Bryant, may we all have a second act as great as his was,” Cherry concluded.
Top honors for the evening went to Bong-Joon Ho, the South Korean film director who won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and International Feature Film for the movie “Parasite.” Best Actor went to the Joker’s Joaquin Phoenix, who gave another doting speech on leveling the playing field of diversity in Hollywood, while Best Actress went to Renée Zellweger for her role in “Judy.” Brad Pitt, interestingly enough, took home his first-ever Oscar for acting, winning Best Supporting Actor for his role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.”
Top performances for the night included five-time, debut Grammy winning artist Billie Eilish, who sang “Yesterday” for the night’s memoriam sequence. Harriet’s Cynthia Erivo performed “Stand Up,” the song nominated for Best Original Song, with artist and writer, Joshuah Brian Campbell sharing in the nomination. Eminem surprised the audience with a performance of “Lose Yourself,” while Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter opened the show with tributes to Mister Rogers and Elton John, along with nods to the female directors and films that got snubbed such as “Us” and “Midsommar.”
For a complete list of the night’s winners and performances, please visit www.oscar.go.com/.