Photo credit: Ceyli Orrego

Booming beats pound through speakers and jazzy tunes play off of turntables as the third installation in the Jackie Robinson Arts and Humanities lecture series goes underway. The focus of this installment: Black in animation.

Live from Amsterdam, DJ Lynnée Denise kicks off the series mixing various music styles, from R&B to disco, each transition smoother than the last.

“Take it away,” shouts the host of the event actor Charles Reese.

Reese introduces the event’s primary guest, writer, director, and Academy Award winner, Michael Cherry, with enthusiasm in his voice. Reese dives into the making of “Hair Love” and what led to its inspiration.

“I always say it was kind of three different topics we wanted to hit on,” said Cherry. “One we definitely wanted to represent for black fathers. You know, mainstream media gives black dads a bad rap, you know, we are the deadbeats, not present, abusive, all kinds of crazy stuff. I’m not a father yet, but amongst my friend group, all the black men in my life that I know, my dad included, were always there regardless if they were with the mom or not. If you really look at the research black men are the most involved in their kids’ lives, but you look at mainstream media you wouldn’t really see that.”

“Hair Love” is a heartfelt Academy Award-winning animated short film about an African American father, Stephen, learning to do his daughter Zuri’s hair for the first time. The film breaks away from stereotypes and shows a look into the modern African American father.

“I felt like this was a good opportunity to make [the character] younger,” said Cherry. “Let’s show them how young black fathers look today so you know let’s make him younger and let’s give him tattoos.”

This explanation resonated with one attendee and he expressed his gratitude to Cherry.

“As a black dad, thank you for challenging the stereotype,” said attendee Dewayne Reed.

Cherry hopes to instill a sense of pride into young black girls and boys starting from a young age, especially with the use of animation.

“Animation is the first form of filmmaking that a lot of times young people are exposed to be that cartoons or preschool shows,” said Cherry. “There’s just been a huge lack of representation in that medium, so this was an opportunity to put that back into the world so that young black girls can see themselves and young black boys could see themselves as Stephen and hopefully grow up to be as good a dad as he is.”

Unfortunately, Cherry and Reese were cut off in the middle of the interview by a Zoom bot hacking into the event. The bot wrote crude, racist remarks in the zoom chat, causing the discussion to be muted. Confusion and an eerie feeling filled the room before the team finally kicked out the hacker.

The interview returned with the discussion of a significant night for Cherry. This particular night was 2020 Oscar’s night and the first time that Cherry would hold the golden statue in his hand. Cherry’s Oscar-winning speech honored the late Kobe Bryant and brought up important topics such as the CROWN act, a California law that prohibits the denial of employment and educational opportunities based on hair texture. Representing the importance of this issue was Cherry’s guest, Deandre Arnold, a senior who was banned from graduating on stage unless he cut off his dreadlocks.

“We want to say something that hopefully is memorable and for me, you know Kobe had recently passed a couple of months ago at that point,” said Cherry. “Then, the CROWN act was something that I really wanted to shine a large spotlight on. We also brought the young gentleman Deandre Arnold with us to kind of help push this issue forward. It’s just one of those opportunities that you can’t pass up to try to raise a highlight to an issue. The CROWN act can get passed on a federal level that’s going to be a lot of strife and a lot of heartaches that hopefully our kids coming up after us won’t have to deal with when it comes to their natural hair.”

Cherry looks forward to working on his latest project Kings of Napa, a soap opera about a black family-owned winery that will air on the Oprah network.

The night concluded with a musical tribute in honor of women’s history month. Lauren Hills’ ethereal voice filled the air while a picture montage of powerful black women ranging from Michelle Obama to Harriet Tubman filled the background.

“Let it be easy and continue to go where your blood beats,” said Reese to end the night.

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