By Ryan Bukowiecki (@ryanbski)
Amid a handful of meaningful, “lets save the world” acceptance speeches and the instantly likeable Bong Joon-Ho trying to make sense of his instant (American) celebrity, a good contender for the most feel-good story from the 2020 Oscar ceremony came from a former athlete who unexpectedly won an Academy Award for an emotional short animated film he spearheaded and produced.
Kobe was indeed acknowledged among those who’ve passed recently, as Hollywood and greater Los Angeles continues to mourn him and acknowledge his athletic and creative legacy, but before then Matthew A. Cherry spoke his name in accepting this year’s Best Animated short film Oscar with producing partner Karen Rupert Toliver for their beautifully rendered piece “Hair Love,” which you can see in its entirety above.
“This award is dedicated to Kobe Bryant,” said Cherry to close a truncated version of the acceptance speech he planned. “May we all have a second act in life as great as his was.”
A main highlight of Kobe’s second act was winning that Academy Award last year, it not only made him a rare elite athlete to win an award of that caliber, it also made Bryant the first Black creator to win an Oscar for Best Animated short film. Cherry and Toliver became the second and third Black winners on Sunday.
“Hair Love” exists as pretty much a revolutionary piece in a medium (animation) that has historically lacked accurate and earnest depictions of Black people as themselves and not represented anthropomorphically. So much of the emotion and satisfaction that the piece brings is due to its cultural representation — the issues of taking care of Black hair, a child’s Black hair at that and the bonds that come from both mothers and fathers tending to their children and readying them for their daily routines.
In “mainstream” society the issue of Black people wearing their hair naturally is distressingly still an issue in 2020 and in the run-up to the Oscars, “Hair Love” and its creators have been called on to represent for people, like Texas teenager DeAndre Arnold, who have been scolded or worst for wearing their hair in a certain way. Arnold attended the Oscars with Cherry and Toliver and was mentioned in the acceptance speech as well.
It’s likely that the simple, but resonant, storytelling in “Hair Love” did as much to win the short its award as did its stance as a cultural breakthrough — without spoiling anything, the moment that the fantastically cute baby girl and her overwhelmed father are preparing for in “Hair Love” comes at this short’s conclusion hard and hits you with the kind of emotional weight that only the best of Pixar can rival with in modern animation.
But as a model of forward-thinking and representative mass media “Hair Love” has gotten attention for a while, first as a book by Cherry, who was inspired by his own experiences tending to his daughter and wanted to produce a story that she and children and parents with all types of hair can relate to, that they can see themselves and their lives in. The book has gone on to be a New York Times bestseller.
The leap that this Chicago native took in the wake of a NFL career that petered out in 2007 after short stints with several teams has led him to significant success in Hollywood, producing, writing and directing full-length feature films, TV episodes and music videos. Cherry has found his biggest success as a producer with Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions having worked on a previous Academy Award-nominated project, Spike Lee’s “BlakKklansman.”
Now with his own golden man on his mantle, Cherry has a more direct connection to Bryant, which makes his mentioning of Kobe at his great moment a meaningful salute and an accepting of a challenge that Bryant indirectly bestowed upon many creatives of color during his life and particularly creative athletes.
Bryant held a restless creative spirit that aligned well with his competitive streak, he spoke often of being inspired by literature, great composers and deep thinkers. A child partially of Europe who matured fully in Los Angeles, so much of Kobe’s life was spent among people who laid emotions bare and spread their ideas across wide canvasses for all to see.
Whether he knew it or not, Kobe laid a clear path away from intellectual stagnation and towards ingenuity and open-mindedness that we all can benefit from and with the likes of Matthew Cherry having clearly taken note, our entertainment landscape looks like its going to benefit from new ideas and relevant representations for years to come.
Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Chicago Bears and professional football for WARR