Before the 1980s, the world of toymaking very rarely embraced BIPOC toy designs. Yet Mattel, one of the most noteworthy companies in the business, helped break the mold. While it still took too long for the first POC to be hired, the effects were impossible to ignore. Director (Lagueria Davis) discovers her aunt was that woman who broke through for Mattel. In Black Barbie: A Documentary, Davis turns her lens on the history of black toys in America.
Beulah Mae Mitchell worked at Mattel for more than forty years. Yet it took significant time before the first BIPOC Barbies released. Finally, in 1980, the first “Black Barbie” released, showing unique physical attributes in addition to an iconic look. Yet the road to that point was long and arduous. Many other companies failed on the way for Mattel to finally succeed. Yet even after 1980, toy designers for Mattel had to continue pushing for equal representation. As Kitty Black Perkins pushed to expand the line she created, marketing efforts were scarce. Over the next few decades, Perkins and, eventually, Stacey McBride-Irby helped diversify the dollmaking world.
Much of Black Barbie: A Documentary succeeds when it ties to sociological studies and the history of Mattel. First, the early parts of the documentary lay the groundwork to discuss the famed “doll study” conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark. The test asked children to assign attributes to dolls, such as “normal” or “good.” In many cases, even black participants assigned negative attributes to black dolls. The study influenced the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. The film digs deeper into the study and its findings. Yet more importantly, Black Barbie: A Documentary revives the study in a new and surprising way. The results are staggering in their own right, proving we still have a ways to go.
Furthermore, the deep research into the history of black toys in America is fascinating. It’s no surprise how few toys were made for black audiences. After all, the means of production were wildly skewed by white business owners in control. The economic discussion that David unravels is fascinating.
At the same time, there are moments when Black Barbie feels more like a homework assignment than following the director’s passion. A few casual asides from Davis seemingly downplay the importance of dolls as a cultural artifact. It’s a shame because a more emotive view of her aunt’s work would have gone a long way in showing the story’s importance. This becomes more frustrating as Black Barbie: A Documentary runs too long to be fully effective.
For those interested in the racial economics of toys, or the history of Barbie, Black Barbie provides plenty of compelling information. Yet the lack of focus hurts the final product. On the other hand, Davis shows the talent to dissect a subject. She will make a strong documentary, likely very soon.