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‘Black Barbie: A Documentary’ Review: A Fascinating but Unfocused History of a Groundbreaking Doll


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It’s a part of American lore on race and progress: Within the Forties, Kenneth and Mamie Clark got down to examine the psychological results of segregation on Black youngsters. The psychologists performed a collection of experiments famously known as the “doll take a look at,” during which they requested lots of of kids, between the ages of three and seven, about dolls of various colours. Probably the most well-known and damning revelations from the take a look at — which performed a significant position within the Supreme Court docket ruling on Brown v. Board of Training — got here from the responses to the query of desire. After figuring out the Black dolls as dangerous and the white ones pretty much as good, a lot of the Black youngsters stated they most popular the white dolls to the Black ones.

Director Lagueria Davis repeatedly references the doll take a look at and its leads to her energetic and informative, if uneven, documentary Black Barbie: A Documentary. The experiment anchors her movie, which explores the historical past of Mattel’s first African American Barbie doll earlier than broadening its scope to have a look at the cultural significance of toys in America, how they’ll perpetuate — and typically debunk — stereotypes. Davis, who admits a wholesome skepticism towards dolls early on, makes use of her doc to attract consideration to the varied layers of an present dialog.

Black Barbie: A Documentary

The Backside Line

Compelling materials undermined by a meandering imaginative and prescient.

Venue: SXSW Movie Pageant (Documentary Highlight)
Director-screenwriter: Lagueria Davis

1 hour 40 minutes

Davis opens Black Barbie with a frank admission: Earlier than shifting to Los Angeles in 2011 to pursue her filmmaking desires, the director hated dolls. It wasn’t till she lived along with her aunt Beulah Mitchell, an older relative who collected them and spent a long time working at Mattel, that she started to understand their complexity. Black Barbie is loosely organized round Davis’ journey from skeptic to low-key admirer. Her curiosities information the documentary, one thing that proves to be a double-edged sword.

Accessibility is the first advantage of this strategy. Black Barbie begins from a nonjudgmental place; it doesn’t disgrace viewers for his or her dubiousness, dismissal or misunderstandings on the subject of the sociocultural significance of dolls. Davis’ interviews with consultants and fans anticipate questions {that a} extra insider-y undertaking might need thought pointless. Together with her aunt Mitchell, Davis will get an oral historical past of Mattel and a portrait of the fun of seeing a Black doll as an African American lady dwelling within the lengthy shadow of Jim Crow, at a time when some locations banned them. With Dr. Patricia Turner, an African American folklorist and the dean of UCLA Faculty, she goes over the enduring legacy of the Clarks’ examine and its nationwide implications. With public historian Yolanda Hester and others, the movie presents a quick historical past of different doll corporations — just like the Black-owned Shindana Toys — and the cultural affect of Mattel’s Black Barbie.

One of many earliest iterations of Black Barbie was Christie, a good friend of Barbie, launched within the late 60s. A decade later, Kitty Black Perkins was tasked with creating the primary Black doll to truly be known as Barbie. Davis interviews her aunt and Perkins to get into the nuts and bolts of making the doll — discussing the imaginative and prescient behind her seems to be and clarifying the excellence of a Black doll being known as Barbie.

The documentary jumps from these interviews to ones with an eclectic group of writers, actors (together with Gabourey Sidibe), historians, public intellectuals, psychologists and Davis’ family members to survey the curiosity in and response to Black Barbie through the years. For a lot of the members, the doll is a supply of satisfaction, and even doubters can admit to its significance. Mattel makes an look too, within the type of a DEI government whose slender speaking factors embody defending the company’s incremental progress towards variety.  

The movie hits a snag when Davis tries to widen her thesis, turning a private story into an mental examine. She replicates the doll take a look at for the movie, together with a extra various group of kids and asking them about their emotions concerning the current line of Barbies that embody dolls of various races, talents and physique sorts. The children are pragmatic of their expectations of Mattel, not anticipating an organization to essentially meet their wants or mirror their world. There’s a lot to unpack in these interviews, which the documentary appears to learn as disheartening. I discovered them unusually hopeful — an indication that firms might want to work more durable to impress newer generations. (It will likely be attention-grabbing to see how Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Barbie movie handles problems with variety and inclusion.)

Black Barbie doesn’t spend as a lot time because it may with these youngsters. It pivots towards the top, specializing in a roundtable-style dialogue amongst adults about Mattel’s current makes an attempt to maintain up with the instances. Matters of dialog embody the Barbie vlogs on racism in the course of the top of the 2020 protests and feeble makes an attempt to provide Black Barbie her personal tales. Fascinating as these topics are, there’s a breathless high quality to their unfolding right here — an comprehensible effort to say as a lot as attainable inside a restricted working time. The data overload in the end weighs down the doc, which wanted a sharper focus to actually soar.

Pavan Kumar
Pavan Kumarhttps://site.viagracc.com
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