The image of the blond, slim and white Barbie has been seared into our collective minds. With the Greta Gerwig movie starring Margot Robie on the horizon, Barbie has stepped back into the limelight as an important yet frivolous part of American culture. But what about Black Barbie? While the first ever Barbie doll was released in 1959, it took until 1980 for the debut of a Black Barbie. In fact, throughout history dolls have predominantly been white. When the toy industry pivoted to creating and marketing dolls with different skin colors, it was revolutionary. It’s still a work-in-progress and we’re many years from dolls being truly representative and the white Barbie to be considered the default “regular” Barbie. But Black Barbie… well she made some really important strides.
Twelve years in the making, Lagueria Davis’ debut film Black Barbie: A Documentary is an ambitious exploration of the impact Black Barbie has had over the past four decades as well as an examination of the complexities of racism and representation. Davis’ aunt, who worked for Mattel from the mid 1950s until the 1990s, was the inspiration for the project. She is interviewed extensively along with two notable Barbie designers, including Kitty Black Perkins who designed the first Black Barbie, as well as various other experts and commentators. Interviews take place on colorful and vibrant sets making it look like the subject is in a makeshift doll house. Various Barbie dolls are used as puppets in fun animation sequences
What really impressed me about this documentary is how it approaches its subject from so many angles. It’s not just a historical documentary on the history of Black Barbie. There are numerous deeply personal, philosophical and psychological discussions about the subject matter that are all done in a way that add something important to the conversation. All of these elements are pieced together in a way that keeps the audience engaged. You don’t have to even be interested in Black Barbie to be completely engrossed with this documentary. It’s just that good.
Black Barbie: A Documentary premiered at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.
Little Richard was a Rock ‘n’ Roll icon. He called himself the “brown Liberace” but really he couldn’t be compared with anyone else. He was a groundbreaking in his delivery and had a style all his own. He rocked a pencil thin mustache, a tall bouffant and his signature wardrobe. Songs like Good Golly Miss Molly, Tutti Frutti and Long Tall Sally have become bonafide classics. But Little Richard was never really given his due for just how influential he was.His explosive energy made him a force to be reckoned with on stage and inspired countless musicians including The Beatles, Elvis, David Bowie, James Brown, The Rolling Stones and more.
A new documentary sets out to set the record straight about who Little Richard really was. Directed by Lisa Cortés, Little Richard: I Am Everything paints the portrait of a man who was a walking contradiction. The film goes into depth about his music career, his early influences, how he molded his image and took the nation by storm and the many times he went unrecognized for being a trailblazer. It also explores LIttle Richard’s sexuality and how it often conflicted with his deeply religious beliefs.
The documentary is a bit on the long side and includes some stylistic elements and flourishes that seemed unnecessary. And ending felt rushed. With that said, the film was quite engrossing. It does a tremendous job demonstrating his impact on the industry as well as the dichotomy between his private and public life.
Talking heads include Mick Jagger, John Waters, Billy Porter, Tom Jones, Nile Rodgers, scholars, historians, family members and more.
Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It will air on CNN and stream on HBO Max at a future date.
Directed by Byron Hurt, Hazing explores the brutal culture of hazing with a particular focus on HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Hurt meditates on his own experience with hazing in a fraternity to explore why hazing, despite it being illegal in many states, still persists in college culture. Several victims who have died as a result of hazing are profiled. Their stories are harrowing and you can’t help but feel for their families. These needless deaths are a result of an ingrained culture in which young people are socialized to endure violence as a means of attaining respect in their given group. The initiated blindly trust the upperclassmen who then put them through barbaric rituals for no reason other than attaining pleasure from their own gross abuse of power.
Hazing has an important message to convey but it can get lost in a documentary format that is too long and a bit muddled.
Directed by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, Town Destroyer examines the contentious debate around Victor Arnautoff’s The Life of Washington. This 13 panel mural decorates the walls of George Washington High School in San Francisco, California. Installed in 1936, the murals tell the story of George Washington and includes images of violence against Native Americans and African Americans. Some see the art as subversive. By painting the scenes, Arnautoff seems to be both telling history and criticizing it. Others find the murals incredibly offensive and believe the art is perpetrating harmful stereotypes and further traumatizing minorities.
This film follows the recent battle among those who believe the mural should remain and others who believe it should be painted over. Many arguments are made and the documentary does an excellent job not taking sides. It’s up for the viewer to draw their own conclusion.
Town Destroyer is a fascinating documentary about the debate between free speech and social justice told through the lens of one controversial piece of art.
This documentary was screened at the 2022 Mill Valley Film Festival.
Jada (Margo Parker) and her friends Sky (Daisy Lopez) and Bianca (Victoria T. Washington) are ready to take the music world by storm. It’s the 1990s and girl groups are all the rage. The Space Girls, as they call themselves, are preparing for an audition in front of an important music exec. They take the stage to perform their newest song and everything is going fine until Jada spots the exec. It’s Landon (Peter Zizzo), the man who raped her at a party months earlier. Jada must face the decision of whether to work with her assailant or to give up the dream she has long worked for.
Written and directed by Josie Andrews, Wannabe is a powerful short film, primed for the #MeToo era while also giving viewers a window into the past. It’s a reminder that these situations have been going on for far too long. The power dynamic in the aftermath of an assault has always favored the man and what Wannabe effectively demonstrates is how rape victims face impossible decisions for how they should live their lives moving forward. The film is a personal project for director Josie Andrews. In her director’s statement she says:
“Wannabe is not just a plea to believe those who have come forward, but a cry to consider the thousands who have not.”
I would love to see Wannabe developed into a full-length feature. But it’s also quite potent as a 13 minute short film. The three lead actresses are fantastic and by the end you’ll want to continue following their characters’ journey, wherever it may take them.
Wannabe is part of the 2022 Nashville Film Festival. Visit the director’s website for more information about the film.