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SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ — An Uplifting Tale of Representation

SXSW 2023 Review: ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ — An Uplifting Tale of Representation

Black Barbie: A Documentary is simply spectacular. Writer-director Lagueria Davis has crafted an inspiring documentary that centers the magnificence of Black women and the unique and special power of collaboration. 

Davis is a force of nature. She was a double major in electrical engineering and computer science but left engineering and got her BFA in media art. She moved to Los Angeles and started working as a production assistant on The L Word, was hired as a director’s shadow in Season 3, and now has four original pilots under her belt. 

Black Barbie: A Documentary premiered at SXSW 2023. The origin story of this documentary is that when Davis moved to LA to work in the entertainment industry, she stayed with her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who has an impressive doll collection. Davis isn’t a fan of dolls, but when she asked her aunt the story behind the dolls, the answer inspired this resplendent documentary.

In the late 1950s, upon the recommendation of a relative, Mitchell got a job working on the assembly line at the Mattel toy company constructing Jack in the Box toys. Mattel co-owner Ruth Handler would visit the assembly line to get feedback from the workers on the various toys and bonded with Mitchell. Mitchell was personable, proficient at the work, and quickly progressed up the ranks due to her positive nature and work ethic. 

When Handler had the idea for the Barbie toy, she contacted the staff and welcomed their feedback. The team created the first Barbie doll, which was wildly popular. Eventually, during one of Handler’s impromptu visits to the assembly line, Mitchell recommended that Mattel make a Black Barbie doll. Handler listened, and in 1968, Mattel’s first Black doll, the Christie doll, was created, eventually leading to the creation of Black Barbie. 

The documentary follows Mitchell’s career as she moves from the production floor to the head office, making friends every step of the way. At that time, the only other Black person working on the white-collar end of the company was a man who worked in a technical aspect of the company. As Mitchell worked as a receptionist, she subtly broke a glass ceiling, normalizing Black women working in the office in Mattel.  

My favorite part of this documentary is the relationship among the three generations of Black women who played vital roles in the creation and evolution of Black Barbie at Mattel: Mitchell, Kitty Black Perkins (designer of Black Barbie and chief designer of fashions and doll concepts for Mattel’s Barbie line), and Stacey McBride-Irby (project designer for Mattel). Each of these women was the first Black woman to be hired in her role at Mattel, and as they each came on board, they encouraged and supported one another, inspiring Black Barbie to evolve into other Black Barbie doll brands. 

Often when we think of how systemic change happens, the focus is on the marches and the lawsuits. In Black Barbie: A Documentary, we see how social justice can work tangibly in real life in collaboration. Handler was open to change and collaboration. After the 1965 Watts uprising, community activists Lou Smith and Robert Hall created Operation Bootstrap, which provided job training and skills to community folks who needed it. Through that effort, the Shindana Toy Company was born. They made Black dolls that looked like Black people, and Lou Smith convinced Handler and her husband, Mattel co-owner Elliott Handler, to invest $200,000 in the opening of the Shindana Toy Company.  The Handlers wanted to set Shindana up for success, so they sent folks from Mattel over to Shindana to teach its workers the same techniques that Mattel used to make dolls.  

As a documentary filmmaker, Davis is a master storyteller. With archival footage and interviews with Black Barbie fans from diverse generations and backgrounds, she builds clear documentation of the history of Black dolls, which gives insight into how the images of Black people subconsciously imprint caste and social class onto young Black children. Davis interviews a wide range of Black experts from media, education, fashion, the entertainment industry, and toy design, giving unique insight into and texture to Black Barbie’s journey and her positive impact on Black women, girls, femmes, and the Black men who love and support them.  

Everything about Black Barbie: A Documentary is magic. At the same time, Davis grounds the film with poignant group interviews with brilliant scholars and therapists who discuss the impact of the subtle messaging of representation. The kids in the focus groups notice that Malibu Barbie, the doll with white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, is always the star of the show, while the Brooklyn doll with darker skin, brown eyes, and dark hair is always placed in the supporting role of best friend. The documentary clearly reflects how kids of color are constantly programmed to see whiteness as the norm that is centered. It broke my heart to see children of all ages in focus groups still being groomed to conform to the burden of the American caste system in the 21st century.

The film is beautifully shot and has fantastic transition scenes that showcase Black Barbie and indeed Barbie dolls of all colors and genders that span the entire catalog of the doll, complementing the narrative. The music is perfect for each moment, and every interview works to tell the larger impact of Black Barbie. 

When I saw Black Barbie on the screen, I was transported back to 1980, and all of the love, pride, and emotion flooded my heart as I remembered the feeling of having my own Black Barbie doll. She was beautiful. Even though her complexion was not as dark as mine, it didn’t phase me. I loved the slightly coarse texture of Black Barbie’s hair. It was just like mine, and it was the first time I could see my natural hair as beautiful. As a child, I was told I had the worst hair in the family and was regularly forced to go to the beauty shop to be ridiculed by Black male hairdressers who hated my hair. Black Barbie proved to me that Black women with short hair are indeed feminine, beautiful, and valued.

I cried as several women in the documentary shared the powerful positive impact Black Barbie had on them as little girls. In a relentlessly venomous society that finds sport in attempting to dehumanize Black women as much and as early in our development as possible, our joy is the most powerful tool to our being able to set aside that noise and ground down into loving our authentic selves. Black Barbie: A Documentary centers Black women and girls, reminding us that our beauty is ubiquitous and that the strength of our support and love for one another is how we always rise and thrive. Thank you for seeing us in this magnificent film.

Black Barbie: A Documentary premiered March 11, 2023, at the SXSW Film Festival.

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