‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ Review: A Fascinating but Unfocused History of a Groundbreaking Doll
It is part of American lore on race and progress: In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark set out to study the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. The psychologists conducted a series of experiments famously called the “doll test,” in which they asked hundreds of children, between the ages of 3 and 7, about dolls of different colors. The most well-known and damning revelations from the test — which played a major role in the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education — came from the responses to the question of preference. After identifying the Black dolls as bad and the white ones as good, most of the Black children said they preferred the white dolls to the Black ones.
Director Lagueria Davis repeatedly references the doll test and its results in her energetic and informative, if uneven, documentary Black Barbie: A Documentary. The experiment anchors her film, which explores the history of Mattel’s first African American Barbie doll before broadening its scope to look at the cultural significance of toys in America, how they can perpetuate — and sometimes debunk — stereotypes. Davis, who admits a healthy skepticism toward dolls early on, uses her doc to draw attention to the various layers of an existing conversation.
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Davis opens Black Barbie with a frank admission: Before moving to Los Angeles in 2011 to pursue her filmmaking dreams, the director hated dolls. It wasn’t until she lived with her aunt Beulah Mitchell, an older relative who collected them and spent decades working at Mattel, that she began to appreciate their complexity. Black Barbie is loosely organized around Davis’ journey from skeptic to low-key admirer. Her curiosities guide the documentary, something that proves to be a double-edged sword.
Accessibility is the primary benefit of this approach. Black Barbie begins from a nonjudgmental place; it doesn’t shame viewers for their dubiousness, dismissal or misunderstandings when it comes to the sociocultural significance of dolls. Davis’ interviews with experts and enthusiasts anticipate questions that a more insider-y project might have thought unnecessary. With her aunt Mitchell, Davis gets an oral history of Mattel and a portrait of the thrill of seeing a Black doll as an African American girl living in the long shadow of Jim Crow, at a time when some places banned them. With Dr. Patricia Turner, an African American folklorist and the dean of UCLA College, she goes over the enduring legacy of the Clarks’ study and its national implications. With public historian Yolanda Hester and others, the film presents a brief history of other doll companies — like the Black-owned Shindana Toys — and the cultural impact of Mattel’s Black Barbie.
One of the earliest iterations of Black Barbie was Christie, a friend of Barbie, released in the late 60s. A decade later, Kitty Black Perkins was tasked with creating the first Black doll to actually be called Barbie. Davis interviews her aunt and Perkins to get into the nuts and bolts of creating the doll — discussing the vision behind her looks and clarifying the distinction of a Black doll being called Barbie.
The documentary jumps from these interviews to ones with an eclectic group of writers, actors (including Gabourey Sidibe), historians, public intellectuals, psychologists and Davis’ own family members to survey the interest in and reaction to Black Barbie over the years. For most of the participants, the doll is a source of pride, and even doubters can admit to its importance. Mattel makes an appearance too, in the form of a DEI executive whose narrow talking points include defending the corporation’s incremental progress toward diversity.
The film hits a snag when Davis tries to widen her thesis, turning a personal story into an intellectual study. She replicates the doll test for the film, including a more diverse group of children and asking them about their feelings regarding the recent line of Barbies that include dolls of different races, abilities and body types. The kids are pragmatic in their expectations of Mattel, not expecting a corporation to really meet their needs or reflect their world. There’s much to unpack in these interviews, which the documentary seems to read as disheartening. I found them strangely hopeful — a sign that corporations will need to work harder to impress newer generations. (It will be interesting to see how Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie film handles issues of diversity and inclusion.)
Black Barbie doesn’t spend as much time as it could with these children. It pivots toward the end, focusing on a roundtable-style discussion among adults about Mattel’s recent attempts to keep up with the times. Topics of conversation include the Barbie vlogs on racism during the height of the 2020 protests and feeble attempts to give Black Barbie her own stories. Interesting as these subjects are, there’s a breathless quality to their unfolding here — an understandable effort to say as much as possible within a limited running time. The information overload ultimately weighs down the doc, which needed a sharper focus to truly soar.