How Matthew A. Cherry Advocates for Black Representation On and Off Screen

When Matthew A. Cherry’s animated short, hair love, debuted in 2019, he solidified his name in the entertainment industry as a storyteller with a genuine intent to ensure representation of his art. The film not only won Cherry the 2020 Oscar for “Best Animated Short,” but it sparked a dialogue about the importance of authentic depictions of the black experience, especially black hair.

Now, two years later, Cherry has expanded his directorial expertise with his work on the OWN series, The Kings of Napa, while partnering with Dove to create the Dove Kids Care Hair Love collection, inspired by The love of hair. The products are designed for kids with textured hair and include conditioner, shampoo, and more.

For(bes) Culture caught up with Cherry to chat The Kings of Napa, her new hair care line and other upcoming projects.

For Culture: You directed the first two episodes of the Napa Kings series. How did it happen? What initially piqued your interest?

Matthew A. Cherry: I have a first-look deal with Warner Brothers, and Janine Sherman Barrois has that too, and then the show was put together there, and they send me stuff all the time. It was one of the things that I really connected with, and I’m a huge fan of Janine, who is the showrunner. It’s so important, especially when you’re starting out directing a pilot and really setting the look and tone of a series. There was just such organic conflict and drama, but also a great opportunity for inclusion and diversity in the cast and just the range of different skin tones, different actors, as well as the lush Napa Valley settings. And with all the art and fashion, it really was a great opportunity to work on something like that.

For Culture: Many viewers have praised the series for highlighting themes of black wealth, generational wealth, and more. Can you talk about the importance of presenting themes like this on TV for the masses to see?

Cherry: I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily important, but I think it’s cool to see an ambitious family in this world. Given the pandemic and the times we live in, sometimes it’s nice to be able to just disappear into this world you hope to one day be a part of as well. It also shows the pitfalls of that too – like how often money isn’t the answer, and sometimes money can tear a family apart and all the bigger issues and drama that comes with that, especially the fact to be a black family. So, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily significant in that way, but I think it’s a good snapshot of that slice of life to see.

For Culture: Your new hair care line with Dove has recently launched. Inspired by your award-winning animated short, hair love, this line was created for children with textured hair. Can you tell us about the journey of creating these products? How was it?

Cherry: It really helped to deepen the conversation we tried to have with the hair love project. Obviously it’s a picture book and an animated short and soon a television series that will be released on HBO Max under the new name young love, but it all just helped to deepen this conversation. When it comes to the hair care industry, not much focus is on young kids who have textured or curly hair. Much of it is aimed at older audiences, and to us it felt like a natural extension of the conversation we’ve been trying to have. When you really look at kids’ self-esteem and the things they consume in terms of media, often they don’t see themselves. Whether it’s magazine covers, TV shows, movies, posters, etc. This is all just part of that same conversation. Having Zuri on the bottle, I think, is really important because people fell in love with that character, and also, he looks like them.

For Culture: Last year, your home state of Illinois signed a bill outlawing hair discrimination in schools. Can you talk about the importance of that?

Cherry: The workplace and school are where a lot of kids are discriminated against because they are themselves, whether it’s their skin tone or their hair texture, and what made me always tripping up in this conversation is that it’s one of the few things you couldn’t change if you tried. Telling someone they can’t wear their hair while it’s growing out of their head, at school or at work is insane to me. It really helps to make it illegal in that if you find yourself discriminated against, you now have a legal basis to fall back on and you also have that support to help you rectify the situation.

For Culture: What other projects are you working on this year?

Cherry: I have a few more TV episodes coming out. I had the chance to direct an episode of Abbott Elementary School. Young Love will be released later this year, and then we have an animated feature called All that we are working on with Sony Pictures Animation. There are a lot of opportunities right now, and I think it’s just a matter of keeping your head down and getting the job done. Also, continuing to do things that I think speak to humanizing the black experience, and things that really present another slice of life from worlds that people think they know, but really don’t know, is really my greatest motivation for telling stories.

For Culture: Of all your upcoming projects, what excites you the most?

Cherry: young love is something I’ve been a part of since 2017 when we launched the Kickstarter campaign, and to have a full half-hour comedy series on HBO Max with these same characters but voiced by different people is really exciting. I can’t wait for people to see it. It tells a different version of an anime series that we are used to seeing. It really focuses on a young, unsuccessful millennial family. They have a young child, and they’re also trying to pursue their dreams but also have this young child, so they can’t completely give up on their personal lives. They also need to make sure their daughter is okay.

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