A New Documentary Explores Why The First ‘black Barbie’ Was Much More Than Just A Doll

From left: Beulah Mae Mitchell, Stacey McBride-Irby, Lagueria Davis and Aaliyah Williams, the subjects and producers of ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary,’ pose for a portrait at the 2023 SXSW Film Festival. (Robby Klein/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

By Kaila Nichols, CNN

(CNN) — In the first few minutes of her new documentary film, the writer and director Lagueria Davis pays a visit to her aunt, Beulah Mitchell. At Mitchell’s house, they look through a room filled with boxes of dolls stacked up to the ceiling.

Davis — who says in the documentary she was far from a fan of dolls herself — was curious about why her aunt loved the toys so much, so when she discovered her aunt’s role in the creation of the first Black Barbie doll, she knew there was a story that needed to be told.

“Of course she had a story, so I wanted to jump right in after that,” Davis explained in an interview with CNN. And so she did: “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” her newly-released project, takes a deeper look at the story behind Black Barbie and its impact on representation in the toy business, and culture more broadly. The film features the stories of Black women who worked at Mattel, as well as appearances from Shonda Rhimes, ballerina Misty Copeland, Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Congresswoman Maxine Waters among others. Rhimes (whose production company, Shondaland, acquired the documentary at the SXSW Film Festival last year), Copeland and Muhammad have all had Barbies fashioned in their likeness.

Mitchell worked at Mattel for over four decades, starting her career at the company in 1955 on the assembly line — one of few Black Americans employed there at the time. As a child, she had been fascinated by dolls, she recalled in the documentary, but due to the lack of Black dolls at the time, it never occurred to her that she could have a Black doll specifically.

In 1960 or 1961, she encouraged Mattel founder Ruth Handler to create a Black Barbie doll — an “act of revolution,” UCLA professor Patricia A. Turner says in the documentary. (at the time, Handler replied, “we’ll see,” Mitchell remembered.)

While Mattel did later sell Black dolls like “Christie” and “Nurse Julia” in the late sixties, they were not Barbies. (Christie was billed as a side character in “Barbieland,” while Nurse Julia was a celebrity doll based on the actor and singer Diahann Carroll.) The actual Black Barbie doll didn’t become a reality until decades later, after the company hired Kitty Black Perkins in 1976 as its first Black designer.

Upon Black Barbie’s eventual release in 1980, it was clear Black Perkins’ design was the complete opposite of the Barbie people knew: full lips, wide nose, bold colors and a short afro.

“When I designed this doll, there was a need for the little Black girl to have something she could play with that looked like her,” Black Perkins says in the documentary. “I wanted her to reflect the total look of a Black woman.”

The first Black Barbie (pictured center) wore a bold red dress, gold jewelry and an afro. (Courtesy Netflix via CNN Newsource)

The impact of inclusion

“Barbie is such a ubiquitous and iconic brand. It’s important to know that (the) Barbie brand could be attached to a non-white doll,” Aaliyah Williams, the documentary’s producer, told CNN. “Having Black Barbie (dolls) just reinforces the fact that being Black is fly and amazing — and that Black women are gorgeous. Not that having Black dolls growing up was the only reason I felt like that,” she continued, noting that “I always felt like, ‘wow, I am gorgeous. I come from gorgeous people.’ I never questioned that… But I think that if having a doll that you get to see yourself in helps you, then sure.”

The documentary also touches on the impact dolls can have on young people, and how they can reinforce ideas — and ideals — of beauty. (Mattel has often faced criticism for its lack of diversity over the years, and for the literally impossible unrealistic body proportions Barbie embodies.) Some of the Black women interviewed in the documentary recalled playing with White dolls — and trying to change their dolls’ hair and eyes to look more like them. Others shared that they were specifically only given Black dolls by their parents.

“I can still feel that sense of joy that I felt when I first was introduced to Black Barbie,” said historian Yolanda Hester, calling the doll “an acknowledgement of your existence and that you’re here and that you are valued.”

Even with limited marketing and advertisement, Black Barbie sold so well, according to Mitchell, that it led to a whole world of Black dolls. These included the Shani doll line (in various shades) and a 30th anniversary doll from designer Stacey McBride-Irby, who also features in the documentary. While working at Mattel, McBride-Irby also launched the So In Style (S.I.S.) line of Black dolls highlighting mentorship and community.

In recent years, the Barbie brand has further expanded and diversified greatly by offering dolls with different body types, careers and physical disabilities.

“It’s a beautiful legacy story,” Davis told CNN. “It shows how representation can work — and we’re talking about a time when there weren’t any DEI initiatives.”

“Black Barbie is validation for my aunt and Kitty and Stacy, being seen and heard at a company where they were oftentimes silenced. Black Barbie is also validation for us filmmakers, everybody who worked on it, being seen and heard in this industry,” she added.

Williams said she was deeply moved when watching the documentary’s final cut.

“I just felt emotional. It was so, so beautiful. I think this is the ultimate love letter to Black women, who are often not validated and told how amazing they are, she said. “I’m so proud of this film and I’m so proud of Lagueria and I cannot wait for the world to see it.”

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