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The History of Miscellaneous Dolls – The Hollywood Reporter


It’s part of American knowledge about race and progress: In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark set out to study the psychological effects of racial segregation on black children. Psychologists conducted a series of experiments known as the “doll test,” asking hundreds of children, ages 3 to 7, for dolls of different colors. The most famous and damning revelation from the test – and which played a key role in the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education – came from the responses to the preference question. After identifying black dolls as bad and white ones as good, most black children said they preferred white dolls to black dolls.

Director Lagueria Davis repeatedly references the doll test and its results in her energetic and informative, if uneven, documentary. Black Barbie: A Documentary Film. The experience anchors her film, which explores the history of Mattel’s first African-American Barbie doll before expanding its scope to look at the cultural significance of toys in America, and how they can perpetuate—and sometimes refute—stereotypes. Davis, who admits to having a healthy skepticism toward dolls early on, uses her doc to draw attention to the different layers of the current conversation.

Black Barbie: A Documentary Film

bottom line

Compelling material undercut by meandering vision.

place: SXSW Film Festival (documentary highlight)
Director and screenwriter: LaGueria Davis

1 hour 40 minutes

Davis opens Black Barbie Admittedly: 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 raised her and spent decades working for Mattel, that she began to appreciate its complexity. Black Barbie It is loosely structured around Davis’ journey from skeptic to simple fan. Her curiosity guides the documentary, something that proves to be a double-edged sword.

Accessibility is the primary benefit of this approach. Black Barbie starts from a place of no judgment; He does not shame viewers for their skepticism, ostracism, or misunderstanding when it comes to the social and cultural significance of puppets. Davis’ interviews with experts and enthusiasts anticipate questions a more in-house project might think unnecessary. With her Aunt Mitchell, Davis gets a Mattel oral history and a picture 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 were outlawed. With Dr. Patricia Turner, African American folklorist and dean of UCLA College, she reviews the enduring legacy of the Clarks study and its national implications. With public historian Yolanda Hester and others, the film provides a brief history of other doll companies—such as black-owned Shindana toys—and the cultural impact of Mattel’s Black Barbie.

One of the earliest iterations of Black Barbie was Kristi, Barbie’s Girlfriend, and was released in the late 1960s. A decade later, Kitty Black Perkins was commissioned to create the first black doll, actually called Barbie. Davis interviews her aunt and Perkins to get into the details of the doll’s making – she discusses the vision behind her appearance and explains what defines the black doll called Barbie.

The documentary moves from these interviews to interviews with an eclectic group of writers, actors (including Gabourey Sidibe), historians, public educators, psychologists, and members of the Davis family to survey interest in, and reaction to, Black Barbie over the years. The doll is a source of pride for most of the participants, and even skeptics can acknowledge its significance. Mattel appears, too, in the form of a DEI CEO whose narrow talking points include advocating the company’s gradual progress toward diversity.

The film hits a snag when Davis tries to expand her thesis and turn a personal story into an intellectual study. She replicates the movie’s doll-testing, including a more diverse group of children and asking them about their feelings regarding the latest line of Barbie that includes dolls of different races, abilities, and body types. Children are pragmatic in their expectations of Mattel, not expecting the company to truly meet their needs or reflect their world. There is a lot to unpack in these interviews, which the documentary seems to read as depressing. I found them strangely optimistic – a sign that companies will need to work harder to impress new generations. (It will be interesting to see how Greta Gerwig fares Barbie The film addresses issues of diversity and inclusion.)

Black Barbie Don’t spend too much time with these kids. It centers around the finale, focusing on a roundtable-style discussion among adults about Mattel’s latest attempts to keep up with the times. Topics of conversation include Barbie blogging about racism during the height of the 2020 protests and feeble attempts to submit her stories to Black Barbie. As intriguing as these themes are, the revelations about them are impressive here – an understandable effort to say as much as possible within a limited runtime. Information overload eventually weighs on the document, which needs sharper focus to really go up.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.