2023 Calgary Underground Film Festival: Black Barbie: A Documentary (2023)

Director and writer Lagueria Davis has created an amazing movie that asks so many questions about Barbie and what she means to the world of race. Yes, there were once no black Barbies, then there was only Julia, Barbie’s black friend who had no African-American features, just the same doll with black skin. And today, we have come pretty far, but still not far enough, as this movie shows.

Davis’ aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell worked at Mattel for 45 years and was only the second black person to work at their headquarters. She became friends with the woman who created Barbie, Ruth Handler, as well as Kitty Black Perkins, who made the first black-featured Barbie.

At one point, girls had to ask, “Why not make a Barbie that looks like me?” I was thinking about this today at a toy show, as when I was a kid, the only choices black kids had when buying Star Wars toys were Lando and one of his Bespin guards. That’s it. Two black dolls and hundreds of other aliens and all white people.

I liked how this film showed how people interacted with the doll as kids, what it means to them today and how the brand still needs to do better. That said, the fact that representation has increased does mean something. As a purchaser of boy toys growing up, G.I. Joe always had a diverse team of ethnicities and outlooks, even having multiple African-Americans: Roadblock, the heavy machine gun soldier who joined the army to learn how to be a chef; Doc, a military chaplain and medic who despite being on an anti-terrorism task force is a pacifist; Stalker, who escaped the ghettos of Detroit to be a leader and Alpine, who was an accountant and a mountaineer. On the cartoons, the Cobras even had black characters, such as Cobra officer Lieutenant Clay Moore and Raven, a Strato-Viper pilot. As for He-Man, an all-white line, they have added the Sun Man characters to their characters, providing some much-needed addition of other races.

The “Barbie and Nikki Discuss Racism” moment in this in pretty weird, though. I think it’s important to speak on these issues, but even G.I. Joe mainly handled problems like downed power lines. It’s a big topic for kids to get into and are Barbie and Nikki the right people to be discussing these heavy issues?

Black Barbie raises thoughts and questions I didn’t think of and for that, I found it an interesting film. I’d liked if it was a little shorter, but it’s not my movie or story to tell.

This movie is part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival, which for twenty years has been dedicated to elevating Calgary’s cultural landscape with the best in international independent cinema. Recently, CUFF was named one of the Best Horror Festivals in the World, 2022 by Dread Central, and one of the World’s 50 Best Genre Festivals and one of 50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee in 2021 by MovieMaker Magazine. CUFF continues to attract audiences with its programming of films that engage audiences and defy convention.

It’s running from now until April 30 and you can see the entire schedule here.

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