“Black Barbie: A Documentary” is a frustrating, fascinating documentary centered around the marginalized, underrepresented toy product. [SXSW]

Representation is a big pain point with many products in today’s consumer market, specifically those aimed towards kids. In walks Barbie, the iconic, independent, tall white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. The problem however lies with the young black girls that pick up this Barbie and ask themselves, as does director Lagueria Davis (1 in 3), “Why not make a Barbie that looks like me?”

Black Barbie begins with Davis moving in with her 83-year-old aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell and exploring her aunt’s past as a Mattel employee, taking Davis on an unexpected journey into the history of the Black Barbie. As she takes a deeper look inside the history of Barbie and the brand’s steps (and missteps) towards diverse representation, she brings forward a deeper conversation of marginalization and indoctrination.


A still from Lagueria Davis’s BLACK BARBIE: A DOCUMENTARY.

Through the viewpoint of her graceful, lovely aunt Beulah, Davis gives us a purview of the history of the Black Barbie, bringing us to one of the most important key figures behind the many iterations of the dark-skinned doll, Kitty Black Perkins. Through Perkins, we also learn of another influential figure behind the Black Barbie that took the baton from Perkins, Stacey McBride-Irby. These two figures played a hand in the many iterations of Black Barbies over the years. But that’s just half the story. In the beginning, Davis seems to present a story of a woman coming to terms with her history and indifference towards Barbies (funny side point — Davis hates dolls) and not being “seen” by the massively popular brand as a young black girl. And there’s another insider story of how a Black Barbie came to be from the inside out. If the whole film played with this dual storyline, it could be wrapped up in an hour, rather than 100 minutes. But Black Barbie becomes way better in its second half when it delves past this. When Davis makes good use of her talking heads (Precious’s Gabourey Sidibe, Dear White People’s Ashley Blaine Featherson, etc.), we see a more poignant look into what Black Barbie actually means to others, specifically Black women.

When Black Barbie leans into its deeper themes of representation, it becomes a better documentary. There are a couple heartbreaking moments in which talking heads discuss their unfortunate histories with racism and their moments of shock and joy at seeing one of the first influential lines of Black Barbies, Shani. Other strong suits of Black Barbie are the moments where the film highlights a focal group where young kids are asked what they feel when they look at the Barbies in front of them. This is where the conversation moves from representation to society’s unfair beauty standards. Some kids look at white Barbie as the “preferred weight” or what women should look like in today’s society. Some kids look at white Barbie as the “normal” Barbie which lends to the indoctrination of kids of different races who are used to only one color of Barbie. That complacency becomes heartbreaking when the Barbie that actually looks like them is labeled as “Other” in their minds rather than “normal.”

HeadShot-LDavis 2

BLACK BARBIE: A DOCUMENTARY director Lagueria Davis.

All of this is great and fits the bill for powerful reflection and discussion, however, there’s one huge fault Black Barbie has in its construction. The film tends to provide more questions and problems than it does solutions or answers. There’s a dry, cynical tone Davis carries throughout Black Barbie that is at first humorous, appropriately biting, then, in its final act, exasperating. Black Barbie can be a frustrating watch at times as it undercuts the progressions the toy company makes on its way to diverse representation. It seems with every step Mattel takes forward, there is still criticism from talking heads (and the film’s director) and the overall consensus is for the company to just “do better”. Well, how? Black Barbie only slides over the “how” and instead focuses more on being witty or dismissive of whatever step Mattel tries to put forward in righting their wrongs. Another moment of note is when the talking heads view the infamous “Barbie and Nikki Discuss Racism” video, a step forward in racial awareness and racism education for young viewers and the reception mostly resembles “yeah, nice try, but still, do better.” As we all know, everyone’s take is subjective and no one group thinks the same, but instead of a “do better” response to the toy company’s attempts in change, the film should instead try responding with a “nice try, but here’s how this could be better”.” It would help the film walk its walk as well as it talks its talk. It feels like the film whines and complains in its third act rather than provides solutions. Black Barbie can be a frustrating watch at times with its stance on pushing representation, but it doesn’t make it any less of an important frustrating watch. Shining a light on the marginalized Barbie products, the figures behind these products, and their audience makes Black Barbie an important, if not messy, dedication to beauty — Black beauty — and Black representation and tearing down society’s flawed perspectives of such things.

Screened during SXSW 2023.

For more information, head to the official Black Barbie: A Documentary SXSW webpage or film website.

Final Score: 3 out of 5.

SXSW 2023

Categories: In Theaters, Reviews

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