The ambitious documentary “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is a massive undertaking from filmmaker Lagueria Davis. Telling a thorough history of the classic doll, including development, marketing, and what it meant for black girls to finally have a toy that looked like them, the film tackles an abundance of information which at times makes it feel disjointed, unfocused, and overstuffed. But the overall message of the importance of representation and the strength and power of black women is one that is deeply meaningful and inspiring.
Inspired by her 83 year old aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, Davis decided to make the film as a way to tell her story. Mitchell spent 45 years working at Mattel, and she recounts her personal experiences at the toy company, as well as the impact the first black Barbie doll had when it was released in 1980. Davis also interviews many black experts and fans who discuss their own transformative experiences seeing themselves (and their skin color) represented by a very popular toy. The most interesting talking heads are the various pop culture experts, people who have not only chosen a pretty cool career path, but are also very interesting to listen to. It’s touching to hear what it meant for these folks to finally see a doll that looked like them.
The documentary tries to tackle issues that are far too expansive for a 100 minute film, and a bit more focus would’ve been appreciated. Davis has a lot to cover and in trying to include as much as she can, many of her main points are spread too thin. There’s a great deal of complexity to issues of representation and race, and both are so important and relevant.
The most compelling part of the film is when young girls and boys are interviewed as they are playing with dolls and are asked “which one is the real Barbie?” Every child points to the blonde, white version rather than the black and brown dolls. This reiterates the urgency of the film’s subject matter.
Davis’ voiceover narration isn’t great, nor is her script (the film would be better with neither), but these are minor hiccups. “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is an imperfect look at a cultural icon, but there’s a ton of ambition and a vitally important message in this documentary that commands respect.
By: Louisa Moore