TODAY'S PAPER
32° Good Evening
32° Good Evening
OpinionCommentary

The lessons from Oscar-winning animated short 'Hair Love' cut deep

Matthew A. Cherry, left, and Karen Rupert Toliver,

Matthew A. Cherry, left, and Karen Rupert Toliver, winners of the award for best animated short film for "Hair Love", pose in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Credit: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Jordan Strauss

Good art often shows us something old and familiar, but makes us see it in a new way.

That’s a big part of what makes Chicago filmmaker and former NFL wide receiver Matthew Cherry’s adorable Oscar-winning short "Hair Love" so effective and important.

On Sunday, Cherry became the second ex-pro athlete in three years to win an Oscar in the animated short category. That puts him in exceptional company. The first was the late Kobe Bryant, who won the Oscar for the 2017 short film "Dear Basketball."

Cherry’s topic is something close to all of us: hair.

Especially black hair. Even for black men and boys. As an African American male, I can tell you that growing up around black women and girls exposed me to a lot of chatter about the styles, combs, chemicals and rituals associated with black hair.

And, brief as it is, I learned a bit more from Cherry’s short. Written and directed by Cherry, the seven-minute film follows an African American father’s first attempt to do his daughter’s hair. It does not go well. But with the help of a video blog, voiced by Issa Rae, he muddles through in a heartwarming way that bonds them and reveals important lessons about patience, identity and rewards.

"’Hair Love’ was done because we wanted to see more representation in animation," Cherry said as he and producer Karen Rupert Toliver picked up their statuettes. "We wanted to normalize black hair."
"Normalize" is a curious, yet appropriate word for him to use. As "normal" as black hair with all of its related history, styles and meaning is to black people, it remains an exotic, foreign and even threatening aspect of black physiology to the uninitiated.

On the good side, there are numerous videos on YouTube with captions like, "Single Dad Learns to Do His Daughter’s Hair," "Black Dad Goes Viral Braiding Daughters Hair During NYC Subway Ride" and Facebook sites like DadsDoHair.

There are some white and Latino dads in some videos, too. But considering the abundance of negative images of young black males that we see in media, I like the idea of "normalized" images of men actively engaged in what has always been a traditionally female role: wielding the big comb, hair clips and conditioners.

But unfortunately some people are still so shocked by new hairstyles that they remind me of my high school principal, who railed at the Beatles’ "weird hairdos."

Today we have new scandals, such as the clipping of New Jersey high school wrestler Andrew Johnson, who made national news when his dreadlocks were forcibly cut off before a match.

Or there was the case of Deandre Arnold, a Mont Belvieu, Texas, high school senior who was told he can’t attend graduation unless he cut his dreadlocks. Arnold and his mother, Sandy, were invited to attend the Oscars as the guests of Cherry and Rupert Toliver.

And then there is Chastity Jones, a black woman who lost a job opportunity in Alabama because she refused to cut off her dreadlocks. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission joined her case, but a federal appeals court ruled that dreadlocks were a changeable characteristic of black people and therefore did not meet the federal discrimination standard.

That’s what Cherry was talking about when he ended his brief speech on a political note: "There’s a very important issue that’s out there," he said. "The CROWN Act, and if we can get this passed in all 50 states it will help stories like DeAndre Arnold’s, who’s our special guest tonight."

The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, has been enacted by California, New York and New Jersey. Illinois and 21 other states are considering versions of their own, according to the website set up by advocates. Two Democrats, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, have introduced a federal version.

The ball is rolling. For now, I close with the wise words that my late father used to say when I was defending my robust Afro in the late ’60s: "It’s not what’s on top of your head that matters, it’s what you have inside."

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.

Columns