‘Black Barbie’ Review: Witty and Weighty Doc Dives Into the History of the 1980s Doll

“I hate dolls,” writer-director Lagueria Davis states early in her debut documentary “Black Barbie.” By turns a celebration and an interrogation (sometime both simultaneously), the film delves into the history of the titular Black doll Mattel released in 1980. That was 31 years after the first Barbie began her rise to becoming the most iconic, uncomfortably influential, doll in American history. Davis makes a jam-packed argument that the road to Barbie diversity and inclusion has been long and marked by detours, intersections and, maybe a dead end or two. Davis’ first-person, inflected journey — often witty, often weighty — will lead her to a reconsideration of her antipathy (which she attributed to being a tomboy). Her reason for this rethink is personal — and adorable.

In 1953, Legueria’s aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell made her way from Forth Worth, Texas, to Los Angeles. She landed a job at Mattel in 1955. She left in 1999. Archival photos of Mitchell as a “spinner” — a person who tested the crank on a Jack in the Box — is just one of the documentary’s many archival photos that delights and instructs. “Black Barbie” offers an impressive cache of newspaper photographs, newsreels and more that augment the repressed record of Black life in the United States.

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Mitchell’s memories of the toy company and particularly Ruth Handler (who founded the company with her husband, Harold) are fond. And she proves game as her niece gently grills her about dolls in general and Mattel specifically. Mitchell was among the employees who started advocating for a Black Barbie in the early ’60s. It took nearly two decades for that advocacy to arrive in the person of designer Kitty Black Perkins, who had Diana Ross in mind when she designed Mattel’s first Black Barbie and dressed her in a red gown, with a little back and a little leg showing.

Perkins was also responsible for hiring another Mattel change-artist: doll designer Stacey McBride-Irby. It’s Mitchell, Perkins and McBride-Irby who make the movie’s most persuasive argument for where change must originate: in the workplace.

With its deeply amusing re-creations of actual Barbie dolls sauntering into white spaces or sitting at the end of a conference room table (the only BIDOC — Black, indigenous doll of color, so to speak), the movie can be wryly playful. Davis and cinematographer Sara Garth (with the assist of Esin Aydingoz’s score) make these plastic figurines beguiling, glamorous characters. (Not since Todd Haynes used dolls in his 1988 underground gem, “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story,” have Barbies been used to such pointed and anthropomorphizing effect.)

But there is pain, here, too. In the 1940s, Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark famously conducted an experiment with Black children and dolls to underscore the damage to self-image wrought by segregation and racism. Stripping dolls of all indicators besides a diaper and the tint of their plastic, the couple put two white and two brown dolls on a table and asked children a series of questions. In an interview some years later, Kenneth Clark recounts the questions the pair posed: “Show me the white doll. Show me the colored doll. … Show me the doll you want to play with. Show me the nice doll. Show me the doll that’s a bad doll.” Clark goes on to report that a majority of the Black children at the time ascribed positive characteristics to the white doll. Some of the couple’s chilling findings from this study and others made it into the arguments during the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.

The reading of the Clark’s experiments even now feels complicated: was it the dolls or the ingrained racism the children experienced that lead to their excruciating replies? But then so does the relationship of popular culture representations or lack thereof to how members of marginalized groups understand themselves in a culture that denigrates or ignores them. Is a positive self-image possible without economic security and prospects?

At least two women interviewed in “Black Barbie” break down as they share that not seeing dolls that looked like them aggravated their isolation in white-dominated spaces or fed their sense of not being seen in the world, of not feeling beautiful in a world circumscribed by the blond-haired, blue-eyed, pert figured girl of 1959.

The amount of information and breadth of inquiry here suggested a question: Can a Barbie doll’s head spin? Because yours might since Davis has consulted nearly as many interviewees as there are Barbies. Kidding aside, on her trek to understand doll culture, Davis enlists an accomplished array of culture mavens, sociologists, historians, collectors, a former Miss Black California, a child model, the director’s own niece and one boldly clad soul who identifies as a Black Barbie. Engaging and upending contradictions abound.

The film consists of three chapters and the final one, “Future of Black Barbie: Center of Her Own Story?,” features a brainy klatch of thinkers led by developmental psychologist and professor Dr. Amirah Saafir and family therapist Yeshiva Davis who’ve done doll studies with a new and diverse set of youngsters. Agency is the topic. And even more than the adults who fawn over the original Black Barbie doll more than her contemporary descendant Brooklyn Barbie, the children in this segment offers ample insights we’ll want to return to as we head into a summer with director Greta Gerwig’s and star Margot Robbie’s live-action Barbie on the horizon.

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