Animated short ‘Hair Love’ to show the bond between fathers and daughters Filmmaker Matthew Cherry wants to help ‘normalize’ black fathers

Matthew Cherry’s evolution has taken him from the football field to a stint as a production assistant to music videos. Now, his résumé includes a heartwarming short film in production called Hair Love.

Cherry said the idea for the film came from watching viral videos of fathers interacting with their daughters. In particular, he focused on ones that showed fathers combing their daughters’ hair, which can be both a chore and a bonding experience.

His five-minute animated film is about the relationship between an African-American father, Stephen, his daughter, Zuri, and her hair. Although Stephen has long locks, he is used to his wife doing his daughter’s hair. When she is unavailable right before a big event, Stephen has to figure it out and concludes that Zuri’s hair has a mind of its own.

Cherry said the “story was born out of seeing a lack of representation in mainstream animated projects, and also wanting to promote hair love amongst young men and women of color. It is our hope that this project will inspire.” He took to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to fund the film. His initial goal was $75,000. To date he has raised almost $252,000, making Hair Love the best-funded short film in the history of Kickstarter.

Cherry, 35, is a former college wide receiver. In his four-year career at the University of Akron, he finished with nearly 2,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. After college, he played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina Panthers and the Baltimore Ravens. In 2007, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment, landing work as a production assistant.

“I was just Matt the PA, and I was here to work,” Cherry said. “I was here to learn and work the game from the ground up, and that’s how I kind of got my foot in the door.”

He has worked on more than 40 commercials and was a director for more than 20 music videos for singers and entertainers such as Michelle Williams, Tweet, Jazmine Sullivan, Lalah Hathaway, Kindred The Family Soul, Snoop Dogg, The Foreign Exchange, Bilal, N’Dambi, Maysa Leak, Dwele, Najee, K’Jon and Take 6.

Cherry’s film The Last Fall received awards at the American Black Film Festival (ABFF) for Best Screenplay and Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF) for the HBO Best Feature Film Award. After a limited theatrical release, it made its television premiere on BET in December 2012 and is currently streaming on Netflix and Hulu. He recently released a short film, Forward, which premiered on Ebony.com. He also writes and directs the award-winning web series Almost 30 and Almost Home.

Cherry has one sister (visual artist Caitlin Cherry) and grew up on the northwest side of Chicago.

“Sports was a big part of both of our lives growing up,” he said. “I played baseball ever since I was 5. Football ever since I was 6. Played three sports in high school. Had a full scholarship for football in college. … My existence was very much kind of tied into sports growing up.”

Cherry spoke with The Undefeated about his transition out of football, positive representation of black fathers in the media and normalizing black families.


What was your inspiration for Hair Love?

The biggest, and I think the most important, is just we’re seeing a big lack of representation in that computer-generated, animated world.

We really haven’t seen a lot black characters in that space. Bebe’s Kids was the first animated feature film directed by a black director. That came out in 1992; 25th anniversary was a couple of days ago. Peter Ramsey was the first African-American director to direct a CGI [computer-generated imagery] animated film. That was like two or three years ago, Rise of the Guardians. I think in between that time, there’s really only been those two black directors that have done like a full-length feature film in the animated space.

So we only really have had in recent years maybe four or five examples of full-length feature films that really tell our story. But a lot of times you don’t really see the whole, full family dynamic, particularly in these computer-generated feature films. The biggest thing for me is just like really seeing that lack of a presentation. … I don’t have kids myself right now, but got a serious girlfriend, and one day we’re going to get married and be having kids, and I really wanted to make sure that when I did have kids that they had a character that they could relate to.

When you look at mainstream media, and you see all the images, black hair isn’t made out to be the norm. It’s not meant to be the standard of beauty. We have a very Eurocentric standard of beauty in America, and if you watch TV, if you pick up a magazine, if you look at different things, you’re not going to see yourself represented. … You don’t see your curly, kinky hair on these different models, on these different actors and actresses, on these different music videos, etc. It can really do damage to your self-confidence and how you perceive yourself.

That’s why my biggest thing with this project, first and foremost, was just to really hopefully have some characters that were human, that showed black families in a complex but also simple manner, and just have characters that people can relate to but then try to help increase that diversity in the animation world, because representation is everything. I think my biggest thing is if a little girl can see Zuri or see Stephen, and see themselves represented, if it makes them feel better about themselves, to me, mission accomplished.

Who did you consult with about dads, daughters and hair?

I’ve actually had this idea for a couple years. I always thought it would be cute to do a story about a dad trying to do his daughter’s hair. I’ve seen a lot of kind of online videos, and my main dad friends who have kids, they’re always posting pictures and videos online of their failed attempts of trying to do their son’s and daughter’s hair, and just always thought that that would be a really cool angle to hit, particularly because the whole black father angle. I think, again, in mainstream media, we’re really nonexistent.

We look at a lot of these movies and TV shows, they always depict black dads as deadbeats, nonexistent, abusive. These fathers, they’re getting girls pregnant, running off, that whole thing, and while obviously in every race, every group, you have that negativity, but it’s always made out in the black community like that’s just all black men are. We just are deadbeat dads. We’re not in our kids’ lives.

So for me it was just really important to normalize black fathers, normalize black families. And really I think in starring a young black father and his daughter, I think that would just do wonders to kind of help normalize those images, because it’s important.

What’s been the most difficult part of moving from football to filmmaking?

The most difficult part of my journey is feeling like you have to constantly create your own opportunities. Like, to this day, nobody’s ever hired me for anything. All my opportunities have been self-generated in some fashion. Outside the music video world, from feature films to short films, it’s all been stuff that I either created with some friends or I created on my own, and sometimes it gets frustrating because you feel like, ‘I made this. This premiered at a major festival. Help me.’

Help me get to the next level. I did the work. I followed the blueprint. I did everything that they say you’re supposed to do in order to have somebody help you get to the next level. …

You make all these sacrifices like putting your mom’s life insurance money into the making of your first movie. It comes out, hey, you get a little bit of press, but nobody hires you. Damn. OK. You go away for a couple years. You do random things to kind of stay alive. Then my second feature film, 9 Rides. We shoot it on iPhones and that’s the thing that gets you noticed and gets you an agent and then you realize that all the work you and your team put in mattered after all.

They’ve seen us doing the short films for no budget. They’ve seen us doing the music videos. They’ve seen us doing these feature films and all this other stuff, so. I think the biggest, most difficult part of the journey has just been having to continuously create your own opportunities to kind of continue to put yourself in the game, and I think that there’s a lesson in that, in that you can’t predict what’s going to be the thing that hits, or is going to be the thing that helps put you on. You’ve just got to keep working, keep grinding, and eventually something’s going to hit, or eventually someone’s going to help.

Do you miss football?

Not at all. Not in the least. No, I don’t, especially with all this news about what’s been going on with players’ heads and CTE. I’m actually glad that I didn’t play too long. People have been playing since they were 5 years old, too. You know what I mean? Between Pop Warner, high school, college, you might have your five or 10 years in the league, but if you’re 25 you might have played for 20 years.

How did you prepare for your career after sports?

I studied radio, TV, broadcast and media production in college. I interned at a lot of radio stations, and I was the music director at my college radio station at the University of Akron. I interned up at the Cleveland radio stations, KISS and then on WENZ. And so I would always be kind of dabbling in production, but more of an audio-radio side, and it was something I was really interested in. I loved cutting promos, loved working with all these other kind of post-production programs, and I kind of knew even in college that whenever I got done playing ball I’d either be working in radio or some level of entertainment on the production side of things.

I signed as an undrafted free agent. My rookie year with the Jacksonville Jaguars, I knew after training camp, I was like, “Yeah. I’ve got to get my plan B together,” because it was just so political. When you come in as an undrafted free agent it’s like being a walk-on, so all these things have to happen that are outside of your control in order for you to make it. Guys will generally have to get hurt or traded and all these other things. It’s not really about how you perform, necessarily. It’s about, ‘OK, can you justify putting this guy in over the guy we’re paying millions of dollars?’

And I knew literally in training camp like, ‘Yeah. This is kind of unfair. I’m doing my thing, but I’m still not getting rewarded for it on the field.’ I actually got cut during training camp, and then they re-signed me to the practice squad. That’s how they do it, and I learned when I first got cut by just feeling there was nothing more I could have done. I felt like I balled out. I did everything that I should have done to be able to make the regular team, and it didn’t happen for me.

What’s up next after Hair Love?

This has all been a roller-coaster ride. The biggest thing for me is just really trying to just continue to do projects that are personal to me. Things that I really love. We hope to be able to use the characters from Hair Love and turn it into a feature film

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

‘Bachelorette’ finale recap: I’m reclaiming my time Bryan wins in the longest, wackest season finale

We have been hoodwinked, bamboozled, led astray, run amok and flat-out deceived. Last night’s three (three!)-hour finale sold Bachelor Nation a fugacious dream. Led to believe that what we thought we knew was going to happen wasn’t going to happen, Bachelor Nation sat through three hours of season 13’s asinine new finale format only to have Bryan, the smarmy, oleaginous Miami sweet-talker, win Rachel’s heart anyway. Yeah, how’s that for SAT words?

So sure were we, we foolhardy loyalists, that a plot twist was around the corner, that speculation quickly turned to fantasy.

Was Eric, the king of emotional glow-ups and breakup beards, our beloved dark horse, going to win it all? NOPE. In a shocking twist, Rachel sends Eric home even though Peter told her he wasn’t ready to get down on one knee and that wasn’t likely to change anytime soon. Let me be clear: I wanted Peter to win. I mean, I knew Bryan was going to win from day one and I wanted Peter to prove me wrong. But when Rachel called out Peter’s name over Eric’s, I let out a noise so primeval I shocked myself and had to apologize to the neighbors.

Eric’s departure was followed by Peter’s. Poor, sweet Peter. Peter, who takes marriage the most seriously of all three men. Peter, whose breakup kiss with Rachel lasted five minutes and who cried when she left and who walked by her eyelashes for two days afterward because he didn’t have the heart to throw them away. How could Rachel just walk away from all that? And then to see Rachel light up on the couch next to him during the live commentary and then try to hide it by being rude because her man is watching — it was too much.

There is one hour left in this finale, and Bryan has won by default. But wait, Bachelorette producer Chris Harrison says, you might want to stick around — do you really think you know who wins? So Bachelor Nation sits tight for naught, although we don’t know it yet.

Let me rant for a second. Rachel, a single, successful black woman in her early 30s, fell into a trap that I see a lot of single, successful black women in their 30s fall into. Here is a good man, Peter. Matter of fact, here are two good men, Eric and Peter. Men with whom you connect on a deep emotional level, who are also attractive and charming but maybe aren’t quite ready to get down on one knee yet (in Peter’s case) or are so new to the love game you write him off (Eric). I know you want to do things the “right” way: engagement, marriage, house, babies, in that order. But come on, Rachel, it’s 2017. There is no right order anymore. Was a ring so important to you that you gave up on love? Because I don’t believe for a second Rachel and Bryan have the kind of strong emotional connection that lasting marriages are built on. But what do I know? I’m not single, I’m not in my 30s, and my “success” is questionable.

The final hour was a blur. A mindless blur. What happened? Doesn’t matter, because the winner was revealed long before the end of the show. That means you have official permission to zone out. Did I mention the asinine new format? Anyway, congrats, Rachel. You might not have gotten the man you wanted, but you got the ring. The gaudy, pear-cut halo pavé ring.

Whatever, fam. Maybe Cardi B will be the next Bachelorette.

Clinton Yates contributed to this report.

Black love: Sensitive thugs need hugs After home visits, Eric opens up on ‘The Bachelorette’

They say you never forget your first love.

For fans of the Bachelor franchise, we’ll never forget when Eric decided to declare his feelings to Rachel in the Spanish countryside. We certainly won’t misremember when Peter said to her that to him engagement is the same as marriage. And the look on Bryan’s face when Rachel’s sister Constance asked her how it’s possible that they fell in love so quickly is burned into our brains.

But Monday night, after meeting The Bachelorette’s mother, pregnant sister, sister’s husband and a couple of other members of her Dallas-based family, we all learned something about ourselves. To be clear, I am not listing these in the order of appearance, so deal with it.

It should be noted the format was switched up a tad bit for this, so all three guys were in town while the others visited the house as well. This created a bit of a rapid-fire effect, which certainly took its toll on the family. Normally, there would have just been two. For the purposes of brevity, I’m going to combine both the parent experiences and vacation experiences of each.

I’ll also say at this point that if this were me, I would have bailed after meeting these people. Nothing personal, necessarily, but a) not being able to meet her father because he’s a federal judge, b) they are clearly mega-rich and c) they have a chessboard and a telescope in the same room. Three strikes.

Let’s get to the action.

Peter

If nothing else, this man is honest. He told Rachel last week that he wasn’t necessarily going to propose even if he won, a shocking dose of reality from a guy who had the nerve to trot out two black friends in Wisconsin to tout his bona fides on “tolerance,” as if this were the 1960s.

The picture above is of him talking to Rachel’s mother, exposing the look he had on his face almost the entire episode. It was somewhere between “I didn’t actually think this whole ‘marrying a famous black woman’ thing through” and “my God, her family is richer than mine, this is awkward.” If for no other reason than it clearly made him more comfortable, the fact that Rachel’s sister Constance’s husband is white was certainly a calming influence on the family dynamic.

His run of incredibly lucky date opportunities continued, with the two of them this time going shopping for baby clothes for Constance, obviously a win-win situation all around. He gets to talk about how much he loves kids without any actually being present and, on the back end, show up with something for the family that someone actually needs, instead of just a smile and some weak lines about being ready for the next step.

The strangest juncture came when he and Rachel finally sat down to discuss their partnership and Peter basically was unwilling to compromise his previously established values for the sake of a television program. Which leads to the obvious question of: WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING HERE, ANYWAY? … but we’ll get to that later. He contends that he doesn’t want to waste an engagement on a marriage, which is apparently a thing that dudes do.

We’re also guessing he doesn’t like the fact that she’s seen Rachel buy Bryan a Breitling and, in general, still just isn’t really all that comfortable with the fact that he hasn’t won this already. It’s one thing to be against a whole group of guys. It’s quite another when you’ve all got relationships with each other and one of you might not end up getting the proverbial prize, here.

Yayaya Peter’s so sexy and fun. He’s been treating this whole thing like it’s a forced arranged marriage, and his hair is my favorite part about him on this show.

Bryan

This was a disaster right out of the gate. His pre-family meet date was a weak sauce brunch with two of Rachel’s friends, who looked and acted exactly like the type of people you’d meet at your new girlfriend’s brunch who have one too many questions about who you are for polite company. They were talking about the guy like he wasn’t even there, and the whole thing appeared rather unproductive, even for Bachelorette standards.

Things really got moving when they got to the house. Bryan’s No. 1 mistake was looking sloppy. His shirt was a little too big to be untucked and a little too casual to also be unbuttoned, giving him a look simply not befitting of a 37-year-old man whose mom is a little too attached to him. Oh, wait.

Anyway, no one in the family liked him from the beginning, and it showed. Just at lunch, he was fielding questions from all sides and at one point had to leave the table because he was under so much pressure. At which point, Rachel jumped in to point out exactly how much she didn’t appreciate this from them.

It’s worth noting that some of us have thought Bryan was a fraud from the jump. Not that he was necessarily trying to play Rachel, but this was all effectively a game for him, to up his popularity back in Miami, where he’s just another old dude in the club. Of course, that vibe plays well on TV with a bunch of other guys from the Midwest, but in the 305, he’s nothing special. He needs this to keep his playboy vibe relevant, because that “good with my hands” line is getting old.

That said, Rachel’s family made it incredibly awkward. It might be their job to protect their girl, but she’s also a grown-up who knows her way around the world. The whole thing felt gratuitous. In chronological order, Bryan was the last to visit, which made it feel like they were just ready to have these people out of their house.

No one particularly impressed, but we did get a plethora of Constance memes and GIFs, so be ready to deploy those from here till kingdom come.

This is the point where I point out that I think the word “love” should be banned from this show altogether. It would solve so many problems and force people to genuinely appreciate each other without these over-the-top declarations that add unnecessary pressure to something that is ultimately fake. I have thought this for years, and will staunchly defend that stance. Except …

Eric

Look, no one thought this dude would make it this far. He was the first person to nearly fall into Lee’s racist trap, but he made it out of that and outlasted quite a few other guys who might have had him beat on personality and emotion. And, to be even more frank, I’ve really only been talking about these other dudes for the sake of posterity, because this episode was all about Eric. Let me explain.

When this whole thing got serious, nobody counted him in. He barely made the cut to hometowns when he was part of the group date — but next thing we know, here he is, after having a legit parent reconciliation on national television. That’s important, because let’s not forget what happened to Dean, who ambushed his dad with an emotional roller coaster to the point that he ended up getting booted off the show. It was too much.

But Eric was thoughtful and patient about explaining his circumstance. His parents were separated. Love wasn’t really part of the picture. Never mind his personal circumstance of being a product of Baltimore, where the street life was a very real draw and threat at the same time. In short, he was very honest about his emotional availability. It was next to none. He’d never told a girl he loved her. The last time he’d met a woman’s family was in college at Thanksgiving, and the time before that was prom. He was at a clear disadvantage walking into that house.

Let me explain this in no uncertain terms as someone who’s been there. Eric is about as in touch as anyone I’ve ever seen in terms of being self-aware about his own insecurities regarding his family life and what he wants to get to. I’m genuinely superimpressed by his communication. It’s SO easy to psych yourself out when you see a healthy unit and sabotage yourself for the purposes of not wanting to upset someone else’s seemingly perfect situation.

“I’m nervous because going into this, I’m always confident, especially with you,” Eric says while they sip champagne atop some tower restaurant overlooking Dallas. “But it’s your family, and it’s one of those things, it’s like, I’ve never been in this process at this point. Like, about to get engaged with someone. Like, meeting someone’s family for the first time.”

At this point, Rachel seems a bit bored, if not annoyed. It feels like he’s trying to find a way to screw this up, and she ain’t got time for that. But at this point, we start to notice something in Eric we haven’t seen before. His voice is a little softer and more playful. He smiles more. He’s actually not afraid to express a little joy here and there without qualifying it. Dude is very anxious but doesn’t just have to resort to primal screams to make up for it.

When they get there, he doles out a couple of church handshakes and gets right down to business. They were openly hating since they loved Peter so much, which didn’t help his cause. Eric opened up about his lack of structured family life and says, “I’d never seen my mom and dad together.” From there, he sort of runs through it as the soft piano plays, but that sentence is important, and I say that from personal experience.

If you’ve got a parent who’s dead, or lives overseas, or is in jail, that’s one experience. But if you’ve got two able-bodied people who simply do not want to be in each other’s company and happen to be your parents, it’s a situation that affects you a little differently. For example, I have exactly one picture of me, my mother and my father in the same place at the same time. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t understand exactly what Eric was going through in this moment, sitting in this house with a squad of people who’ve all done well to establish themselves together.

“I’m listening to Eric talk as we meet him,” Constance says. “I’m watching Eric’s reaction, I’m watching Rachel, comparing it to what she had with Peter, and I’m thinking, I don’t know if they’re on the same playing field as far as, you know, relationshipwise.”

Of course they aren’t. But that’s the whole point. Eric is really and truly trying to better his situation from an emotional health and life prospects standpoint. He doesn’t have random reservations about getting down on a knee more than once in his life. Nor is his mom going to crash-land his relationship and ruin anything.

Constance gave him the third degree, and he was honest with her about never having been in love. He notes that he’s grown to this point, which is about as honest a thing as you’ll hear on a show like this, ever. Rachel’s cousin likes Eric better than Peter. “He’s not a fairy-tale person. He’s very real,” she said.

“I love her in a way, unconditionally. I’m not in love with her, but for me, when I say those words and I give that, it means a lot to me. The way I look at it, I’m here for you no matter what,” Eric says. “I just want her to know that I can be the man I know I am.”

This is the point where I stood up on my couch in my Whaboom tank top and started applauding. Personal connection aside, I’m completely in the tank for this dude in life, never mind the show. He’s the only black man left. He’s showed his actual self on camera, and perhaps most importantly, as a result he genuinely has become a cooler dude as the show has gone on. You can’t make this stuff up. Sure, edits help. But take it from me: It’s not easy to fake it when you don’t know what it looks like to begin with.

Honestly, the rest of this episode was a bit of a blur. There’s only so long I can listen to a man try to explain his way through the cobwebs of his heart on TV before I just start crying and thinking about all the mistakes and missteps I’ve made in life as a result of fear, hubris or some dumb combination of both.

No roses were given out at the end of the episode, which featured a “to be continued …,” but the story of the day for me was Eric. When he smiled after telling Rachel he loved her, you could just feel all that weight come off his chest — not because he’d been holding it in, but because he’d been wanting to feel it.

No matter what happens in the rest of this season, we got to witness a real breakthrough for a person on television this week. Good for him, and good for anyone who respects how hard it is sometimes to show the world who you really are, because you barely know how to show yourself that person either.

Tierra R. Wilkins contributed to this report.