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.