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(Austin Texas’ South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival runs March 10-19. Stay tuned to Hammer to Nail for our usual great coverage like this movie review of Black Barbie: A Documentary. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Director Lagueria Davis’ debut feature documentary, Black Barbie: A Documentary, is a playful take on serious issues. Those would be diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as representation. Chronicling the history of Barbie dolls from their whitest days to the release of the first Black Barbie in 1980 and beyond, Davis offers a jaunty journey through past and present. What does the future hold? She shows us that, too. It’s an entertaining film from start to finish, even as it occasionally waxes repetitive towards its conclusion. And the best part about it is that you don’t have to like dolls to enjoy the movie.

That’s how Davis introduces herself, in fact. Though her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, worked from 1955-1999 at Mattel (the manufacturer of Barbie, original and more), Lagueria herself never caught the doll bug. And this despite the fact that Aunt Beulah can lay claim to having inspired company president Ruth Handler to first consider designing a Black Barbie to go along with the white one. It’s when Davis moved to Los Angeles in 2011 and started spending time with her aunt that she got the idea for this film. Flash forward 12 years, and here we are.

The documentary is a celebration of the talents and creativity of Black women. Handler hired designer Kitty Black Perkins, seen in both archival and present-day footage, to devise the look of Black Barbie, and we hear her thoughts on how she outlined and executed her plan. That first doll is clearly grounded in the aesthetics of the 1970s, both in terms of clothing and hairstyle, sharing much in common with superstar Diana Ross.

Next, we meet Stacey McBride-Irby, hired in the 1980s by Perkins and handed the reins to design the next iteration. Along the way we also learn about Shindana Toys, long known for making dolls that did not devolve into the usual racial stereotypes seen from white-owned companies. Davis supports the narrative with ample details from established studies, including those put forth in the 1940s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark that revealed just how much children’s self-image can be harmed by negative portrayals of people like them. That particular report was apparently one of the main influences on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling to end school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education.

In almost all the interviews Davis shoots for the movie, she enhances the frame with marvelously over-the-top set design, befitting the pink word of all kinds of Barbies. We feel this cohesion especially strongly because of the ample clips from animated Barbie films (none of which I knew existed, since I, too, cared nothing about dolls or Barbie prior to watching this). It’s a great visual gimmick that serves the story well.

Finally, Davis brings in a marvelous cast of commentators well-versed in the subject and DEI topics, at one point offering the viewer a panel discussion on the central themes of the movie. She also gives us an updated version of the Clark doll study using children from our current age. And though some what happens in the final third could be abbreviated to avoid some additional retelling of that which has already been made clear, the net effect of all this material is to critique and salute, all at the same time, our universe in all its complicated glory. Black Barbie deserves all the attention she gets.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2023 SXSW Film Festival; Lagueria Davis; Black Barbie: A Documentary movie review

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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