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.
The year is 2017 and the Cabaret Law is still in effect in New York City. Enacted in 1926 during Prohibition, the law states that any business serving food and drink must pay for a license in order to also allow their patrons to dance. This prohibitive law proved to be inherently racist as it hurt minority run businesses in poorer neighborhoods, especially those who couldn’t afford the fee. And now the days of this obscure but hurtful law are numbered.
Written and directed Christina Kallas, Paris is in Harlem takes place during the final days of the Cabaret Law. It follows various characters, all of whom eventually visit the Paris Blues, a legendary Jazz bar in Harlem once run by Samuel Hargress Jr. to whom the film is dedicated. Much like with Kallas’ film The Rainbow Experiment, Paris is in Harlem employs split screens, cuts and varying perspectives to offer the viewer a multi-character mosaic. While there are many storylines, everything is anchored by the ongoing angst caused by institutional racism, the threat of gun violence, cancel culture and the Cabaret Law. Even tackling these heavy subjects, Paris is in Harlem is a film brimming with hope and joy. It serves as a reminder the power of community and human connection.
Paris is in Harlem premiered at the 2022 Slamdance Film Festival.
Alice (Keke Palmer) has caught the eye of tyrant plantation owner Paul Bennet (Johnny Lee Miller). He teaches her to read and favors her but will not allow her to marry a fellow slave. When her love Joseph (Gaius Charles) tries to escape, Alice lashes out. After enduring a brutal punishment, she escapes through a secret portal in the woods traveling from antebellum Georgia to the early 1970s. She’s found by the side of the road by truck driver Frank (Common) who takes her in and shields her from potential internment at a sanitarium. Alice discovers what the world is like decades later, an improvement from her previous life but with progress still needing to be made. She must find the courage in herself to help her family back home and to inspire Frank to rediscover his activist roots.
Directed by debut filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden, Alice is a highly rewarding time-travel drama. Keke Palmer is superb in the title role. Time travel elements are tricky but I found that Palmer did great job conveying the fish-out-of-water experience while also demonstrating her characters inner strength. Excellent performance by Johnny Lee Miller is truly terrifying in his role. This is sure to be a crowd pleaser especially when through Alice’s POV we get to fight back with her. There are several references in the film to Pam Grier and her character Coffy. The film is set and shot in Georgia which gives the film a great southern Gothic vibe. The soundtrack features some wonderful 1970s jams.
Alice premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
The presence of three black women at a predominantly white New England college unleashes a dark and mysterious force in the new horror movie Master. Written and directed by Mariama Diallo in her feature debut, the film stars Regina Hall as Gail Bishop, the new “Master”, aka dean of students, for the fictional Ancaster College. As Bishop tries to settle into her new role at Ancaster, she’s tasked with guiding the board of directors in deciding whether the only black professor on campus, Liv Beckman (Amber Gray), deserves tenure. One of Beckman’s students, freshman Jasmine Moore (Zoe Renee), is struggling to acclimate to Ancaster as she’s constantly confronted with subtle but potent forms of racism from faculty, staff, and fellow students. Ancaster is known to be haunted by a former student and Jasmine happens to have been assigned the same room where the student had committed suicide decades before. As the holidays approach, the deeply rooted racism that has been part of Ancaster’s history from the very beginning manifests itself into an evil force that is hellbent on destroying the women.
Master tackles one of the horrors of our everyday world. In the film, racism haunts its victims like a ghost. It’s a mysterious force that takes many forms and is passed down through generations. It persists no matter how much the characters struggle against it or how much they’re gaslit to believe that progress has been made. Diallo effectively demonstrates the power of racism in pretty much every aspect of this film. The message is there: racism will never truly go away. And that is a horrifying reality.
A must-watch, especially for the performances by Regina Hall and Zoe Renee.
Master premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and will be available on Amazon Prime March 18th.