Representation in the Toy Aisle in Black Barbie: A Documentary
Lagueria Davis' SXSW selection recounts how her Aunt Beulah changed dolls forever
Growing up, Lagueria Davis wasn’t one to idolize dolls. But after college she moved in with her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, and she was fascinated by her unusually large collection.
“I was surrounded by dolls, just thrusted deeply into the world of dolls,” Davis began. “I knew that she worked at Mattel, but I didn’t know her story. One night, she wanted to just chat and get to know each other, and she pulled out a bottle of Manischewitz and some snacks and we sat down and she started telling me her story, which included being on that first Barbie line.” One story really caught her attention: “It was how her and her colleagues asked, ‘Why not make a Barbie that looks like me?’”
Aunt Beulah’s question sparked an idea that changed history, an idea explored in Davis’ Black Barbie: A Documentary (premiering at this year’s South by Southwest Film & Television Festival). When Mattel started, they only made one kind of doll: the thin, blonde, white Barbie that immediately pops into your head when you think of the doll. Mitchell’s question to co-founder Ruth Handler got Mattel’s wheels turning, as Davis uncovers in her documentary.
“[My niece] found it very interesting that I had so many Black dolls and Barbies,” Mitchell said. “She wasn’t aware that many Black Barbies [were made], but it drew her attention and I was very excited to show her that they had these Black Barbies. I would always buy Black Barbie because it was me. And Black people were interested in getting a doll like them. It’s such a glamorous doll.”
“I got thrust into your world of dolls and you got thrust into my world of filmmaking,” Davis said to her aunt.
Black Barbie uses Davis’ aunt’s story to dive into the rich history that Black Barbie inspired for Mattel. Often when other dolls are made in the Barbie line, they don’t get to take the name of Barbie – they become the sidekick, like sister Skipper and Stacy or best friend Midge, a supporting role in Barbie’s universe. But in 1980, based on Beulah’s inquiry, a Black Barbie was launched. Designed by a Black woman, Kitty Black Perkins, who was inspired by the likes of Diana Ross, Black Barbie was a stunning doll, donning a fitted, sparkly red dress and natural short hair.
“Black Barbie herself, I found a bond and a relatability to her. She’ll forever have a special place in my heart.” Davis added, to her aunt: “Man, you turned me into a doll lover.”
Mitchell’s infectious love for Black Barbie shines brightly throughout Davis’ film, steering the path for a promising future where, hopefully, Black Barbie can be the center of her own story, the leading lady. “I just love all of them,” Mitchell gushed. “In fact, my home is filled with Barbie’s spirit.”
And Mitchell’s spirit has filled and inspired Barbie in return. “They did a Black Barbie for my 40th anniversary,” she said. “It’s a Black porcelain Barbie made just for me and it looks like me.”
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