November 24, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lagueria Davis
Culture Representation: The documentary film “Black Barbie: A Documentary” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people, Latin people, and Asians) discussing the history of black Barbie dolls and/or racial issues for Barbie dolls.
Culture Clash: There is an ongoing struggle for black Barbie dolls to not be perceived as inferior or less important than white Barbie dolls.
Culture Audience: “Black Barbie: A Documentary” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about the intersection of Barbie dolls with African American history.
“Black Barbie: A Documentary” is essential viewing not just for people who are interested in this often-overlooked part of Barbie doll history but also for people who aren’t fans of Barbie dolls but want to watch a fascinating pop culture documentary. The movie (which has a total running time of 100 minutes) packs in a lot of different layers that are mostly cohesive. The movie is fairly ambitious in how it puts certain things in a broader historical and sociological context, thereby avoiding being a formulaic Barbie doll documentary that would probably ignore these larger issues.
Directed by Lagueria Davis (who wrote and spoke the movie’s narration and is one of the movie’s producers), “Black Barbie: A Documentary” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival and has since made the rounds at numerous other festivals, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Festival. Davis has said in many interviews that it took her 12 years to make this documentary. It shows in the amount of meticulous research in “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” which makes everything easier to understand by including a timeline of events.
This not a documentary made by a “Barbie fangirl.” In fact, in her narration, Davis (who occasionally appears on screen in the movie) tells viewers from the beginning that in her childhood, she didn’t even like Barbie dolls and never had an interest in them. She says that what inspired her to make this documentary was hearing stories from her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who was one of the first black employees for Mattel, the Barbie toy manufacturing company, where Mitchell worked from 1955 to 1999.
The first Barbie doll, which went on sale to the mass market in 1959, was invented by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler and was inspired by Ruth’s real-life daughter Barbara. Barbie dolls became a hit because they were not the type of shapeless woman dolls that were usually being sold at the time but were dolls designed to emulate the curves and contours of a fully developed woman. The first black Barbie doll went on sale in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement.
Mitchell was mostly a receptionist throughout her career at Mattel, but she was privy to a lot of insider information that she shares in the documentary. Mitchell also kept many valuable mementos and memorabilia from her time with Mattel, some of which is shown in this documentary and would be right at home in a Barbie museum. In “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” Mitchell describes Ruth Handler as a kind and generous boss who always asked for feedback from employees on how to improve the company. Nevertheless, for years, Mattel had a blind spot or resistance to the idea of Mattel making Barbie dolls that were any race other than white.
Mitchell says part of that resistance came from cultural conditioning at the time in the United States, when it was more acceptable to “erase” people of color from representation in many areas of life where people of color existed. The image manufactured for Barbie at the time and which still exists today is that Barbie leads a life of glamour and privilege, which are often out of reach for people who are treated as being on the margins of society.
In the documentary, Mitchell comments: “My mother loved dolls. I loved dolls. I loved fashion.” Mitchell remembers that she was growing up, she was so used to seeing only white dolls being sold as the “pretty dolls,” that “it didn’t occur to me” that dolls that weren’t white could be included as “pretty dolls” too. She remembers the usual black dolls that were around in her childhood were the Aunt Jemima dolls that were considered frumpy and unattractive.
The reasons why the first black Barbie wasn’t introduced until 1968 had as much to do with race as economics. There was deep skepticism that there would be enough demand for black Barbie dolls to make the dolls a profitable investment for Mattel. The underlying doubt was that although black people might buy black Barbie dolls, what about white people, the majority race that was buying Barbie dolls?
“Black Barbie: A Documentary” briefly goes off on an interesting but necessary tangent by mentioning the famous Clark doll tests of 1947, as an example of how dolls can often influence how young people think of racial differences. Psychologist spouses Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark conducted tests with white and black children by giving them a choice between choosing a white baby doll or black baby doll. The children almost always chose the white dolls, thereby showing how white supremacist racism can be internalized from a very young age.
These test results were used successfully in arguments in favor of making racial segregation illegal in U.S. public education in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. However, legislating racial justice in public education is one thing. Trying to do that in the business world is another thing.
As is often the case when white-owned corporate companies exclude representation of races that aren’t white, the excluded races create their own businesses. “Black Barbie: The Documentary” admirably mentions the importance of Shindana Toys, a co-op company that was the first major manufacturer of black dolls and became very successful at it. Shindana Toys, which was in business from 1968 to 1983, was a division of Operation Bootstrap Inc.
Mattel noticed the success of Shindana and saw that there was a viable economic demand to make Barbie dolls more racially inclusive. And so, the first black Barbie doll was launched in 1968. Her name was Christie, who was marketed as a friend of Barbie’s. In 1969, another black Barbie doll named Julia was introduced. Julia was inspired by Diahann Carroll’s title character in the TV comedy series “Julia,” where Carroll starred as a young widowed mother who is a nurse.
Eventually, Mattel responded to requests from consumers to make people of color dolls not just as sidekick friends to Barbie but as dolls named Barbie. Kitty Black Perkins was the designer of Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie, which was introduced in 1979 and went on sale in 1980. Black Perkins, who worked at Mattel from 1976 to 2003, is considered the most influential person at Mattel in creating a wider range of black Barbie dolls.
Black Perkins’ interviews in the documentary are among the most insightful. She mentions that a child psychologist was brough in by Mattel to assess her work when designing Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie. Black Perkins says that psychologist backed off when it was obvious that Black Perkins, as an African American, knew better than the psychologist on what should be done in creating a black Barbie doll. She also says that Mattel gave very little promotion to the first black Barbie doll that she designed.
Black Perkins mentored Stacey McBride-Irby, a Mattel designer who continued Black Perkins’ legacy in creating new black Barbie dolls, when McBride-Irby worked for Mattel from 1996 to 2011. One of the documentary’s highlights is showing Mitchell, Black Perkins and McBride-Irby—three generations of black women who have long histories with Mattel’s Barbie dolls—sitting down together for a talk. Their conversation doesn’t look forced or contrived. It’s a joy to watch. McBride-Irby mentions that her own daughter was an influence in many of McBride Irby’s design decisions for black Barbie dolls.
“Black Barbie: A Documentary” also has the expected array of talking head interviews with Barbie doll collectors, historians, entertainers, cultural experts and former Mattel employees. The movie acknowledges that Mattel has come a long way in diversifying Barbie dolls. However, the documentary also points out that there could be more progress in how Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still push the idea that the only Barbie who deserves the most attention has to be a white female who is thin, blonde and pretty.
For example, even though the “Barbie” animated movies have introduced a black Barbie named Brooklyn Barbie as a friend counterpart to white Malibu Barbie, the storylines often still presents Brooklyn Barbie as a sidekick, not the main star of the story. Malibu Barbie is still at the center of the marketing campaigns for these movies. If racism is mentioned in the “Barbie” animated movies, Malibu Barbie does most of the talking about it.
Mason Williams—Mattel’s senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion—is interviewed in the documentary. He looks visibly uncomfortable in the documentary when he’s confronted with criticism that Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still don’t show racial equality among the Barbies. Williams gives a tepid response by saying that these changes take time and won’t happen overnight.
One of the best parts of “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is in the last third of the movie, when it goes beyond just talking head interviews and shows a series of focus groups with children (about 7 to 12 years old, male and female and of diverse races) to discuss what they think when they are presented with various Barbie dolls and are asked questions about these dolls. Yeshiva Davis (a therapist whose specialty is family and marriage) is the leader of these focus groups.
The results of these focus groups are revealing about children’s attitudes about race relations and perceptions of physical attractiveness, as well as how these attitudes affect their judgments of others and themselves. The children’s answers are sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always come across as very unfiltered and honest. Davis is then shown discussing the results of these focus groups with various educators and cultural historians, who comment on the children’s answers.
Perhaps that is the greatest takeaway of “Black Barbie: A Documentary”: It’s not about which black Barbie dolls are bestsellers for Mattel. It’s about how Barbie dolls, like them or not, have a great deal of influence on how people (especially impressionable children) can view the world.
Netflix will premiere “Black Barbie: A Documentary” in 2024, on a date to be announced.