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'Black Barbie: A Documentary' Review: A Fascinating But Unfocused History of a Groundbreaking Doll

This is part of the American lore about race and progress: In the 40 years, Kenneth and Mamie Clark set out to study the psychological effects of segregation on black children. Psychologists conducted what is known as a series of “doll tests” in which they asked hundreds of children between the ages of three and seven about different colored dolls. The most famous and deadly revelation of the test—which was instrumental in the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education—comes from the answers to the preference question. In After determining that black dolls were bad and white dolls were good, most black children indicated that they preferred white dolls to black dolls.

Director Lagueria Davis has a great time in her energetic, informative but spotty documentary Black Barbie: A documentary . The experiment is the linchpin of her film, which explores the history of Mattel’s first African-American Barbie doll and then expands its scope To examine the cultural significance of toys in America, and how they perpetuate—and sometimes debunk—stereotypes. Davies, who admits to having a healthy skepticism about dolls early on, uses her docs to draw attention to every level of the existing conversation.

Black Barbie: Documentary

Bottom line Engaging material is ruined by a twisty spectacle.

Location: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Focus) Director and Screenwriter: Lagueria Davis
1 hour40 minute

Davis opens up Black Barbie and confesses: before moving to LA In 60 Angelis pursues her dream of filmmaking, and the director hates dolls. It wasn’t until she lived with her aunt Beulah Mitchell, an elderly relative who collected them and worked at Mattel for decades, that she became aware of their intricacies. Black Barbie loosely revolves around Davis’ journey from skeptic to low-key admirer. Her curiosity guides the documentary, which proves to be a double-edged sword.

Accessibility is the main benefit of this approach. Black Barbie starts from a place without bias; it doesn’t feel ashamed to be suspicious, dismissive, or misunderstood by its audience when it comes to the doll’s sociocultural significance. Davis’ interviews with experts and enthusiasts anticipate questions that some of the more insider projects might not consider necessary. Davis, along with her aunt Mitchell, learned about Mattel’s oral history and portrayed the excitement of seeing black dolls as African-American girls living in the long shadow of Jim Crow, when some places banned them. She joins Dr. Patricia Turner, African-American folklorist and dean of UCLA Faculty, to reflect on the enduring legacy of Clarkes’ research and its impact on the nation. Along with public historian Yolanda Hester and others, this film presents brief histories of other doll companies — such as Black Owned

Shindana Toys — and the cultural influence of Mattel’s black Barbie doll.

One of the earliest versions of Black Barbie was Christie, a friend of Barbie’s, released at a later date 40s. Ten years later, Kitty Black Perkins was tasked with creating the first black doll to actually be called a Barbie. Davis interviews her aunt and Perkins to delve into the nuts and bolts of making the doll—discussing the vision behind her appearance and shedding light on the difference between a black doll known as Barbie.

Documentary jumps from these interviews to an eclectic look at writers, actors (including Gabourey Sidibe), historians, public intellectuals, psychologists and Davis’ own family interviews to investigate interest in and reactions to black Barbie dolls over the years. For most involved, the doll is a source of pride, and even skeptics acknowledge its importance. Mattel also came in the form of a DEI executive whose narrow talking points included defending the company’s incremental progress in diversity.

The film hits a roadblock when Davis tries to expand the scope of her thesis, turning personal stories into intellectual studies. She replicated the doll test for the film, including a more diverse group of children and asking them how they felt about the recently launched Barbie line, which includes dolls of different races, abilities and sizes. The kids’ expectations of Mattel were pragmatic and didn’t expect a company to actually meet their needs or reflect their world. There’s a lot to unpack in these interviews, and the documentary seems depressing. I find them surprisingly hopeful — a sign that businesses need to work harder to impress a new generation. (It will be interesting to see how Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie film tackles diversity and inclusion.)

Black Barbie didn’t spend as much time with these kids. It turns to the end, focusing on a roundtable discussion among adults about Mattel’s recent attempts to keep up with the times. Topics of conversation included barbie vlogging about racism during the height of the protests and trying to get black barbies to tell about her A feeble attempt to tell its own story. As interesting as these themes are, there’s a suffocating quality to how they unfold here — an understandable effort to express as much as possible within the limited runtime. Information overload eventually overwhelmed the doctor, and it required a sharper focus to really take off.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)
Director-Screenwriter: Lagueria Davis Producers: Aaliyah Williams, Lagueria Davis Executive Producers: Grace Lay, Sumalee Montano, Camilla Hall, Milan Chakraborty, Jyoti Sarda Photographer: Sara Garth product designer:

Costume designer:

Editing: Heidi Zimmerman Music: Esin Aydingoz File Producer: Rebecca Kent
Sales: Submarine
1 hour40 minute

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