Self-Made Luck leads Matthew Cherry to ‘Hair Love’ Oscar Win and Beyond


NFL wide receiver Matthew Cherry always had an interest in media. Starting from his high school years, he originally thought he’d pursue a career in radio broadcasting. Cherry explains how he transitioned back to media after a successful football career in a recent episode of The AAFCA Podcast.

While attending the University of Akron where he played football, he earned a bachelor’s degree in media. Cherry signed on with the Jacksonville Jaguars as a free agent in 2004. Over his professional career in the NFL he played with several teams including the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and the Carolina Panthers.

Cherry retired from football and moved to Los Angeles where he joined Streetlights, a non-profit organization that trains men and women of color to become production assistants. For Cherry, it was an adjustment from being catered to as a pro athlete to being an entry-level assistant.

“I remember I was with the Ravens in ’06, and you’re on the sidelines with people getting you water and tending to everything,” Cherry says. “And then in ’07, I moved to LA and I was getting water for people, and getting coffee, and moving director’s chairs, and getting talent out of their dressing rooms.”

After working on a several television shows, Cherry decided to start directing and hashed out a plan to accomplish it. At the time he recalls working as a production assistant on the hit NBC series, “Heroes.” He recalls one day he told department heads working on the show his plans to direct and asked if he could use the equipment on non-production days. With equipment secured, he moved to his next need – a project. He decided to reach out to artists on MySpace and offer his services to create music videos.

“I would listen to a new song and I would just like write out treatment,” Cherry says. “And through MySpace, I would submit the treatment to all these different artists that I really wanted to work with. My pitch was, ‘My name’s Matt Cherry, I’m an up-and-coming director. I know you don’t know me from a can of paint but I heard this new song, I know you don’t have a video, and I have this really cool idea for a visual – and it wouldn’t cost you much money as at all I have access to equipment and I’d love to just knock it out for you.’ I did this probably over a hundred times over the course of the season of the show.”

His tenacity paid off and he produced videos for several soul artists including Kindred the Family Soul, Anthony Hamilton, Anthony David, and Jazmin Sullivan.

Since producing music videos, Chery has written and directed several shorts and released his first feature film, “The Last Fall” in 2012; directed episodes on notable televisions series including “Bel Air”, “Black-ish”, “Abbot Elementary”, “Kenan”, “The Wonder Years”, and “Grand Crew”.

In 2017 Cherry launched a Kickstarter campaign for his next project, an animated short he wrote, named “Hair Love.” The teaser went viral and raised nearly $300,000 for the project. The short was released in 2019 and won the Academy Award for best animated short in 2020. While the project had humble intentions, the groundswell of support for the film and its empowering message soon became evident.

“We really just want to promote self-confidence in young people,” Cherry says. “And I just really wanted something that when young girls see these Disney movies and they watch like ‘Frozen’ they want to be a princess too. But you don’t see yourself represented as the heroine or the love interest, or a strong person. And so for us, we want to have a young character in Zuri who loves her hair – she loves it! It’s like easy to write the thing that everybody thinks that we are, or think that they see you as. And I think that’s also an important thing too, because it’s one thing for [people] to exist in our bubbles and only read black content or watch black shows. But to me, that’s always like been the beauty of film – that’s how we see how we’re not so different.”

Cherry accounts a lot of his success to creating his own luck.

“A big thing I’m noticing in my career is sometimes you have to create your own luck. You try to knock down the doors and you really try to get people to see you for who you are. But a lot of times it’s hard for them to take a chance on somebody that they haven’t seen. So you gotta roll up your sleeves and try to get creative and create your own luck. And that’s happened to me several times over in my career.”

Listen to the full interview on the AAFCA Podcast.

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