Black Barbie: A Documentary – Review
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Premiering at SXSW and, most recently, the Gordon Parks Film Competition winner at Wichita’s Tallgrass Film Festival, Black Barbie: A Documentary takes viewers through a journey of Black Barbie and her place in toy figure history.
What’s It About?
Filmmaker Lagueria Davis grew up hating dolls. Yet, she was uniquely positioned to tell the story of Black Barbie, as her family’s story is interwoven with that of Mattel, Barbie, and beyond.
Her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, was one of the few Black people to work at Mattel during its early days and stayed with the company for 45 years. She was there for the creation of its signature toy, Barbie, and hundreds of its different variations. She was even friends with Mattel’s founder, Ruth Handler.
With her aunt, Ms. Mitchell, as the linchpin, Davis tells Mattel’s journey to create Black Barbie and how her legacy continues today.
This Documentary Pops off the Screen
Though Black Barbie: A Documentary has the structure of traditional expository filmmaking, this isn’t a Ken Burns feature. Black Barbie pops off the screen. From the bright pink interview sets to the quirky, stop-motion animation scenes, your experience mirrors a child playing with dolls through time.
The guest interviews add to this freshness. Davis calls on famous actresses, college professors, business experts, and die-hard Barbie collectors to tell this story. The range of interviews paints a picture of Mattel and its Black Barbie line that is surprisingly balanced. It is celebratory of the wins for the organization, including its Francie, Christie, Julia, and Shani doll lines, investment into the Black-owned Shindana Toy Company, and Black Barbie itself.
The Right Type of Representation Matters
The film doesn’t highlight any significant controversy at Mattel. The story of Beulah Mae Mitchell and Black Barbie designers Kitty Black Perkins and Stacey McBride Irby empowers you. Yet Black Barbie: A Documentary also comes with a tinge of sadness. Despite the empowering stories of Black women pushing the organization forward, the Barbie brand still causes harm to Black children.
Are children’s experiences with Black and white dolls as drastic as during the 1940s Clark Doll Test? An experiment conducted within the film by Dr. Amirah Saafir, Professor of Child & Adolescent Studies at Cal State-Fullerton, suggests that it is not. However, children still recognize white Barbie as the standard; every other doll is a sidekick in her story.
The success of Davis’ Black Barbie: A Documentary exists within the tension. It celebrates the work of people in the industry who have successfully challenged the most successful toy brand in the world to represent Black girls. But the film also highlights how difficult it is to transform companies not founded with Black people in mind.
When juxtaposed with the billion-dollar juggernaut, Barbie, Black Barbie: A Documentary serves as a reminder that all of the classic pink glam and accessories can’t hide the missed opportunities to center Black girls in their own story. It reminds us that we must continue challenging toy corporations to do better for minoritized people. Or better yet, support the companies that do.
Black Barbie: A Documentary is a production of The Film Collaborative and LinLay Productions. In association with Just A Rebel, Lovely Day Films, and Lady & Bird Films. Written and Directed by Lagueria Davis.