Black Barbie documentary

'Black Barbie' director Lagueria Davis says "it's not surprising it took 21 years" for Mattel to create the first Black Barbie

Davis' new documentary from Netflix and Shondaland fills a crucial gap in the discussion – Black representation in the Barbie universe and how it all began. 

From the Barbenheimer box office trend, to Margot Robbie’s red carpet outfits, to virtually every major brand being sent into a pink marketing spin, it’s safe to say that Greta Gerwig’s Barbie captivated much of the entertainment world last year. Not only did it bring the famous doll to the forefront of our consciousness, but it sparked important discourse about representation, women’s storytelling and female empowerment. 

But the Barbie conversation only continues now, with a new documentary from Netflix and Shondaland that fills a crucial gap in the discussion – Black representation in the Barbie universe and how it all began. 

Written and directed by Lagueria Davis, the documentary Black Barbie delves deep into the origins of the very first Black Barbie doll. It celebrates three Black women at Mattel who had a monumental impact on the evolution of the Barbie brand as we know it, and how representation and dolls can play a huge role in developing a sense of belonging and identity. 

One would understandably assume that in making a documentary about Barbie, Davis herself would have an affinity with dolls. However, the filmmaker admits she never took a particular liking to dolls growing up. Rather, it’s her connection to her great aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell that drove her to create this documentary. Mitchell was a Mattel employee who asked Barbie inventor Ruth Handler, "Why don't we make a Barbie that looks like me?” 

Davis, who had grown up in Fort Worth, Texas, moved to Los Angeles in 2011 to live with Mitchell whom she had only met twice before. While she knew that her great aunt had worked for Mattel, she wasn’t aware of the important story behind her time at the toy manufacturing empire. 

“It was at that time that I got the details of her story,” Davis tells Missing Perspectives. “She was on that first Barbie line, and I was like, ‘What?’”

Black Barbie director Lagueria Davis with great aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell

Lagueria Davis (R) with great aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell (L). Photo: Supplied/David Mendoza III

When Mitchell explained to Davis that she had told Handler, "Why not make a Black Barbie? Why not make a Barbie that looks like me?", Davis says that “it was in that moment that I turned to her and I was like, ‘You know I'm a filmmaker, right?’ She didn't understand what that meant, but I did, and I felt like there was a story there.” 

Davis went on to research the launch of the first Black Barbie, and also looked into two other women who were instrumental in the process – Kitty Black Perkins, who designed the first Black Barbie, and Stacey McBride-Irby who was eventually recruited by Perkins to help extend the line of Black Barbies.

A major point raised in the documentary – and one that made Davis more determined to make the film – is that it took 21 years to create Black Barbie after the first Barbie, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll, was made in 1959. While there had been a push towards more representation in the Barbie world prior to the first official non-white Barbie in 1980, viewers will learn that previous Black dolls in Mattel’s line were actually just marketed as Barbie's friends, and not as Barbie herself.

“I would like to say it was surprising, but it wasn't,” says Davis. “It's kind of sad to think in terms of all the progress we've made, it still feels like we have a really long way to go.

“The 21-year span, I guess, given that it's a doll, I think that was surprising for me, because it's a doll,” she adds. “The tagline for our film is she's more than a doll, and I feel like that's appropriate. 

“So, it's not surprising it took 21 years. But the surprising part was the fact that it’s a plastic something that I think people don't really place much importance on – but then our film really lays out how important it actually is.” 

Davis speaks to not only Perkins and McBride-Irby, but to other Black women in the documentary who shared their experiences playing with dolls growing up. In doing so, the director helps audiences better understand the relevance of the statement ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ in this context. What may be just a doll to some is in fact a symbol of representation and identity. One of the women interviewed recalls drawing brown eyes onto her fair-skinned, blonde-haired Barbie doll growing up, in order to try and forge a connection. 

Stacey McBride-Irby, Kitty Black Perkins and Beulah Mae Mitchell in Black Barbie

Stacey McBride-Irby, Kitty Black Perkins and Beulah Mae Mitchell in Black Barbie. Photo: Netflix

Davis says she was well aware of just how “vulnerable”, “authentic” and “open” the women being interviewed were. 

“I really wanted to be as intentional as possible with telling their stories and holding a safe space for them to tell their stories,” she reflects. “I also found it inspiring to be able to have these conversations with these women.” 

The vulnerability of these women contributed to her decision to insert parts of herself into the documentary as well. 

“It was at the very last treatment stage and push-back stage, that I had decided to put myself into the film,” she reveals. “If they [the interviewees] trusted me to be vulnerable, then I felt like I had to go on this journey as well. I wanted to be as intentional and vulnerable and open as the people I was sitting down with. That felt like it was the only way it could work.” 

When it comes to what audiences should take away from the documentary, Davis is far from prescriptive.

“I don't want to put any limitation on anyone's imagination,” she says. "So, I don't have a specific takeaway outside of that I hope they enjoy the film, and I thank them for watching.” 

As for where she personally stands with Barbie after going into this project with little prior connection to the doll herself – well, Davis has been converted. 

“​​I love Black Barbie, like she's my homegirl,” she says with a smile. “Inadvertently, I have a collection of Black Barbies. All the dolls you see in the film are now in my possession, so I'm starting a small collection of my own,” she continues, adding she’s also received a few as gifts.

As she now prepares for the rest of the world to learn more about Black Barbie and celebrate the incredible women behind it, Davis is keeping an open mind about her own next big step: “I've yet to personally buy one for myself, so we'll see when that happens.” 

Black Barbie premieres on Netflix on June 19. Watch the trailer below.