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State of the Arts: Zips Alum Nabs Oscar Nomination for 'Hair Love'

A former University of Akron football player has traded in the gridiron for the Oscar's red carpet. Matthew Cherry is nominated for his short animated film, "Hair Love" about a young African-American girl struggling to get ready for a big day. On this week's State of the Arts, we talk with Cherry about his filmmaking journey.

Matthew A. Cherry has been a busy man since he graduated from the University of Akron. First he was a wide receiver in the NFL, then he moved to Hollywood and worked his way up to directing music videos and independent films. 

In January, Cherry found himself on "Good Morning America"talking about his film "Hair Love" and his recent Oscar nomination.


Now that he’s nominated for an Academy Award, along with producer Karen Rupert Toliver, Cherry's busy life has gotten even more hectic.

"Yeah, it's crazy. Every day has felt like a big dream, you know?" Cherry said as he was driving through Los Angeles. 

"You know back-to-back-to-back-to-back press. I haven't really had time do anything."

Making an Oscar nominee
Cherry started the project by funding it on Kickstarter in 2017 where it raised more than $280,000.  At just about six minutes long, "Hair Love" has nearly 14 million views on YouTube.

The film stars a young girl, Zuri, who needs help getting her hair perfect before a big day. She turns on a hair styling tutorial, determined to do it herself.

But when it doesn't go so well, her father steps in to help do her hair for the first time. 

What follows is a touching story about the love and teamwork of family. 

Credit 'Hair Love' / Sony Pictures Animation
Sony Pictures Animation
Zuri struggles to do her hair, even with the help of an online tutorial made by her mother.

Cherry said a lack of African-American representation in mainstream animation inspired him to make the film.

"You know at the time (the project was started) there were only three animated full-length feature films that featured African-American protagonists in lead roles. It was 'Bébé's Kids', 'The Princess and the Frog'and 'Home,'" Cherry said. 

He grew up watching animated movies and wanted to show young people of color they can be represented, too. "It just felt like a great opportunity to get a little bit of us on screen, as well."

In making the film, Cherry said he wanted to combat negative stereotypes of black men. "And then to just really help to try to normalize black hair."

He was inspired by videos online of real life fathers doing their kids' hair. A quick search shows video after video of dads with brushes in hand. Some are tutorials and others show fathers learning how to do hair along with their children. 


Red carpet ready
The Academy Awards are a little over a week away, so does Cherry have his tux ready? 

"(I’m) working on it, working on it. (I) recently started working with a really great stylist. We’re really excited about the opportunity. We won’t come looking too crazy," he said with a laugh. 

After the Oscars, Cherry will be in a different director's chair helming an episode of the ABC show "Mixed-ish."

And after that, he's working on another animated film. So his post-Oscars life isn't likely to slow down anytime soon. 

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.