Hair Love and Church Love

Michelle Reyes

Hair Love, which won Best Animated Short Film at this year’s Oscars, is a sweet and charming story about a Black father learning to do his daughter’s hair for the first time. It highlights the special role that mundane moments like combing hair can play between parents and daughters. More than that, the short means to elevate Black beauty and, as writer and co-director Matthew A. Cherry said in his acceptance speech, “normalize black hair.” Representation matters deeply, and this is true not just in cinema, but in the Church as well.

In her acceptance speech, producer Karen Rupert Toliver said that representation in cartoons is especially important because “that’s when we first see our movies and it’s how we shape our lives and think about how we see the world.” Likewise, what kids see in the Church–from our art and curricula to our leadership–impacts how much importance they’ll ascribe to things like diversity and racial equality.

There is power in visual representation because it envisages what we consider normal. If a White child grows up only seeing White leadership in the Church and reads a Bible storybook with a White Jesus, he will have a very narrow understanding of the special role that culture plays within our faith. Likewise, if a child never sees people in the Church who look like her, dress like her, or talk like her; or if a child never sees someone of his own skin color in their church leadership, this too impacts a child’s understanding of self-worth and his or her potential within Christian spaces.

Representation matters deeply, and this is true not just in cinema, but in the Church as well.

I know this conversation frustrates a lot of people. There was a maelstrom of angry tweets in response to conversations around #OscarsSoWhite. The same thing happens in conversations about diversity in the Church, which is why it’s important to understand that diversity for Christians is not just a box to check. Nor is it something that the Church should pursue simply because it’s currently in vogue. Rather, the Church must pursue racial equality and solidarity because this is what we see in Scripture. In the creation account, God makes all people in his image. Every man and woman of every skin color, ethnicity, and culture is created with inherent dignity and worth. This biblical truth–that no ethnicity is superior or inferior–should be reflected visually in every level of the Church.

This is also why what we have hanging on our walls and what we see on stage matters. Consider, for example, the opening scene of Hair Love. The camera scans one of the walls of the daughter’s room, which is papered with homemade art. There are the typical drawings of her family and a good number of her mom; visual cues that ground the narrative. But there’s so much more. The little girl’s art blends reality and imagination, the present and the future, with self-portraits in space and singing as a celebrity on a stage. There’s even a graphic of a unicorn on a monthly calendar, adorned with vivacious, wavy purple hair. Every one of these pictures normalizes Black culture and celebrates the skills and talents of Black individuals. This little girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be–and the endearing story of her father doing her hair helps us see this narrative through the lens of beauty, hard work, and communal help.

No matter our own culture or ethnicity, we need to be speaking the message in the Church that people should love who they are. We must make it clear to every single member that the way God made them, the way they look, the color of their skin, and the texture of their hair is beautiful, and they will be celebrated for it.

If churches can teach our children to value each other’s differences–not just verbally, but visually as well–instead of expecting others to conform to a single White standard, they will be closer to embracing God’s intended equality for all people. Children who feel affirmed and valued as image-bearing humans will no longer feel forced into silence or shame. Instead, they will feel love.

Topics: Movies