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Black Barbie gets the starring role in a documentary screening in Louisville

Three Black barbie dolls, all dressed in red, stand in the center of the image. The original 1980 Black Barbie is in the middle. Behind them are other Black Barbies out of focus on the background. They are flanked on both sides by white Barbie dolls.
via Lagueria Davis
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"Black Barbie"
In 1980 Mattel released its first Black doll named Barbie, up until then she had been a friend of Barbie. The new documentary "Black Barbie" explores how she came to be.

Barbie has had a big summer with the release of the blockbuster movie. Another doll’s story will be on the big screen this week in the documentary “Black Barbie.”

The documentary zooms in past the doll herself to explain how Black women working at Mattel successfully made Black Barbie a reality in 1980.

Director Lagueria Davis wasn’t a big fan of Barbies growing up.

“I didn't know that Black Barbie existed. And I didn't know that she had a story,” Davis said.

Mattel had created Black dolls before 1980, but they were all friends of Barbie. It wasn’t until the release of a doll with brown skin, an afro and a box that read “She’s black. She’s beautiful. She’s dynamite.” that a Black doll was named Barbie.

The way Davis learned the story of the doll was through her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell. Mitchell was part of the team of Black people at Mattel who advocated to get the doll into production.

“Black Barbie, which was the very first Black fashion doll worthy of the Barbie brand name, really had a significant meaning and impact,” Davis said.

Mattel principal designer Kitty Black Perkins was tasked with designing Black Barbie.

Like Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie,” Davis’ “Black Barbie” focuses on the feminism inherent in the fashion doll, but combines race politics associated with Black Barbie specifically.

“It comes back down to the storytellers, the people, the gaze, that lens,” Davis said. “It is my hope that it is something that we speak to in our film because we move outside of the doll space, which has gotten so much more inclusive.”

Davis said her film speaks to the media at large’s impact of society and people’s understanding of their place in the world.

“Our documentary highlights how [much] less inclusive the media is and how it does censors what we know as stereotypical traditional Barbie as she relates to herself in this new film,” Davis said. “The media does allow that particular Barbie to continue to be the brand, the hero of the stories.”

In her film, Black Barbie and the team of Black people who pushed for her creation take their place as heroes.

“Black Barbie” is screening at Speed Art Museum Aug. 10, 12 and 13.

The Speed Museum is among the financial supporters of Louisville Public Media.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.