SXSW 2023: ‘Black Barbie’ Is About More Than Just A Doll

by Gary Catig

Following in the footsteps of film and television, the toys we see in stores and online are beginning to represent the diverse world we live in today. The action figures and dolls possess different skin tones, hair types, and more so children can see themselves as they play. However, that wasn’t always the case. The documentary Black Barbie, which had its world premiere at SXSW 2023, explores the origins of one of the first mainstream dolls featuring a person of color.

Filmmaker, Lagueria Davis, has a clear vision when it comes to her storytelling. Though she is the guide through this journey, she has the aid of her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, who provides an insider perspective to the development of Black Barbie, and an informative history of black toys in general. Mitchell’s humble and amiable nature matches the mostly lighthearted and fun tone. The use of motion capture animation with dolls and accompanying soundtrack help reinforce the playfulness.

Mitchell isn’t the only charming character providing commentary. We receive firsthand accounts from the designers at Mattel responsible for the influential doll as well as collectors and enthusiasts reminiscing of purchasing their first Black Barbie. The joy and enthusiasm when they share their experiences in infectious that you can’t help but be drawn in. Scholars also chime into putting into context the cultural impact and significance, but nothing is as convincing as each individual’s personal story.

At its heart, Black Barbie speaks to the influence of identity. One simple idea, why not make a Barbie that looks like me, would have such a resounding effect. The film spends the majority of the time on its adults, but ties it to the new generation near the end. It’s interesting to hear children’s candid responses to questions regarding identity and beauty after playing with different Barbies. Sure some the answers still reflect upon societal issues, but there is a level of empowerment for these youths to see themselves in the mediums they consume. Though there is more needed, progress has been made since psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted their doll experiments.

The feature runs at a good pace and is easy to follow even when it jumps back and forth between years of different eras. It presents the subject in a captivating manner that can hold audiences, though an academic analysis of the present doll study is a little dry and can take away from the momentum.

Black Barbie is about so much more than a doll. It’s an inspiring story about the long-lasting cultural impact of a toy and an idea and the strong capable women behind them.

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