‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ Review: Becoming the Main Character


For more than four decades, Lagueria Davis’s aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, worked at Mattel. Davis, the director of the new Netflix documentary “Black Barbie,” was not a fan of dolls, but was drawn to the subject by her aunt, who is a devoted collector.

On the surface, the documentary is about what led to the 1980 release of Black Barbie, but the issues it explores run much deeper: the harm of lacking a “social mirror,” the slow pace of progress and the tensions around darkening a white fictional character.

There were already Black dolls in the Barbie universe before Black Barbie, but all were ancillary — friends of Barbie’s. The Black version of Barbie, created by the company’s first Black designer, Kitty Black Perkins, was meant to be a main character.

What is most interesting about the documentary is the question of whether Black Barbie ever managed to escape her predecessors’ marginalization, as white Barbie remains the standard. Does society need Black versions of white cultural products or new products in which Blackness is centered?

Featuring a wide range of Mattel employees, academics, cultural commentators and women who have had Barbies made in their image, such as the Shondaland founder Shonda Rhimes, the ballerina Misty Copeland and the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Davis complicates our understanding of Black Barbie, both celebrating her existence and recognizing her limitations.

“Black Barbie” looks at a Black toy company that produced multiracial dolls and a line within Mattel that was focused on stand-alone Black characters, created by Stacey McBride-Irby, a protégée of Perkins. Staying with these scenes a little longer, exploring what worked and did not, would have expanded the conversations taking place in the film and the dissonance inherent in trying to make a white doll Black.

Black Barbie: A Documentary
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Netflix.



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