Black Barbie has a well constructed character arc running through it. Early on, filmmaker Lagueria Davis states how she did not like dolls growing up. As the film progresses it becomes clear that maybe it was not that she did no enjoy dolls, she just wanted to play with ones that looked like her. Premiering at SXSW, the documentary does more than just chart the history of the groundbreaking doll. It also looks at how toys can affect our views of self-worth and beauty.
Broken into chapters, the film looks at fashion dolls before Black Barbie was released, the changes she brought to toys, and what the future looks like. The expected talking heads make the first acts very interesting. Interviews with the people responsible for the creation of the doll give plenty of insight into the difficulties behind getting the Black Barbie created and the sense of accomplishment behind it.
Though there is a shocking amount of time between the introduction of Barbie and when her Black counterpart hit the market (literally decades), Black Barbie is not about the struggle between the white overlords of Mattel and the people of color who tried to push things forward. It focuses instead on the small group of Black workers that were there and the ideas they brought to the table. It highlights how a more varied workforce can result in different ideas. (Which is not to say that Mattel was a beacon of inclusivity. Two Black people worked in corporate positions in when the idea of Black Barbie was first broached.)
The most powerful parts of the doc are when people tell their personal stories regarding the Mattel figure. Whether it is someone brought to tears by their childhood friends or a kid from today talking about how they like a doll that looks like them, Black Barbie does a fantastic job of getting across how something as seemingly innocuous as doll can shape standards of beauty. Things start to lose steam during the final act, but it is an eye-opening documentary.
SXSW takes place from March 10 – March 19
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