SXSW 2023 Interview: Lagueria Davis on a Model for the Future in “Black Barbie: A Documentary”

Towards the end of “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” director Lagueria Davis and her aunt Beulah are paging through a history of milestones in the history of Mattel, which built their brand on the doll, somewhat discouraged to see that Chrissy, the first to have a darker complexion than the blonde bombshell most commonly known, wasn’t acknowledged. Well into the making of a film that took 12 years to do it’s subject justice, Davis had already seen the effect that Chrissy and other models such as Francie and Julia, fashioned after the elegance of Diahann Carroll had on legions of Black women who were inspired to see aspirational figures on store shelves and she knew how important the doll had been to Beulah, who devoted her professional life to Mattel, steadily moving up from the factory floor as one of the company’s original employees in 1953 and eventually traveling the world as an executive receptionist. In “Black Barbie,” Davis makes sure this oversight does not stand and in some ways, looks to repeat history as she finds that it took an independent manufacturer named the Shindona Toy Company in Los Angeles, seeded in part with an investment from Mattel, to have success with dolls designed for the Black consumer for larger entities to take note.

Davis has crafted a delightful chronicle of the creation of Black Barbie and the impact it’s had that impossible to resist, becoming especially convincing when the director presents herself as the biggest possible skeptic. After the burgeoning filmmaker was surrounded by the dolls that Beulah brought home from work when she came to live with her aunt as she pursued a career in Los Angeles, she went from being annoyed by the boxes that would crowd her out of the spare room to finding inspiration inside of them, coming to learn of the work of pioneering designers such as Kitty Bell Perkins, Stacey McBride Irby and Stephen Mandela Sumner, who knew their work would have reverberations beyond the playground for communities of color. Touching on the work of sociologists Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark, whose tests with children in the 1950s showed how representation influenced their perception of themselves and ultimately became key evidence in the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn segregation in the case of Brown Vs. The Board of Education, “Black Barbie” puts together a new version of the study to show how far things have come and where as a society we’re still falling short amidst a far less scientific yet no less compelling survey of Black Barbie collectors and fans.

With the labor of love set to become a major crowdpleaser at South By Southwest where “Black Barbie: The Documentary” is making its world premiere, Davis reflected on its epic journey to the screen, her own hard-won affection for the dolls and the film’s fun stop-motion animated sequences, bound to be just the first time she was moving people with the film.

You explain this a bit in the film, but when you’re surrounded at your aunt’s place with these dolls, what made you want to pursue this as a film?

I just didn’t have an understanding as to why someone would love dolls so much, and here I was thrust into this world of dolls. I hadn’t had the opportunity to spend as much time with my aunt when I was little because I was in Texas and she was in California, so when I moved here, I knew she worked at Mattel, but I just didn’t know her story, so this gave me the chance to sit down with her. It was really cute. She actually was the one that brought it up. She was like, “Do you drink? I’ve got some Manischewitz and some snacks and we can sit down and talk this evening.” And I was like, “I don’t particularly drink Manischewitz, but yeah, let’s have a sip.” [laughs] So we sipped Manischewitz and had some snacks, and she told me about working at Mattel.

And she’s talking about Barbie, and I’m like, “Okay, I know Barbie. I’m not a fan of dolls, Barbie included.” But then she mentioned this question that got me to tune in a little harder and lean into the story, [which was], she was there on that first Barbie line, and she and her co-workers were just like, “Why not make a Barbie that looks like me?” And I [thought], “Oh, that’s interesting.” She started to talk about Black Barbie, and if I can be honest, I had no idea. I had no idea she existed until I had this conversation with my aunt Beulah and a lot of people are surprised to hear to there’s a Black Barbie that actually exists. We talk with some fans in the documentary, and they know about Black Barbie, but outside of that world [of doll collecting], not a lot of people really know about Black Barbie. And it’s a great conversation starter. If people ask me what I’m working on, [and I say] “I’m working on a doc about the first Black Barbie, immediately people have their own stories about Barbie and playing with dolls, so I thought to myself, “We need to do tell this story because I think it’ll get a lot of people talking.”

Was it obvious at first this could be a story about legacy, not only in your connection to your aunt, but the other designers?

Of course. That relationship between my Aunt Beulah, and the other designers, Kitty Black Perkins and Stacey McBride-Irby was something that came about after talking with my aunt and then I started to build relationships with Stacey and Kitty, and was able to get their story and saw how the three stories came together, like a domino effect. I watched a lot of Barbie in the research that I did and learning about them, it really gave a really nice through line of how representation could work.

Something I could really appreciated was how you created a timeline that really put the evolution of Black Barbie into context, laying in other significant pop cultural markers that were really relatable such as the album drop of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” What was it like putting that together, perhaps reflecting how it connects to the greater culture?

Yeah, we start with my aunt and I’ve always said, “We’re going somewhere,” so how can we reflect that? The idea of the timeline came about because it seemed fun and as we navigate the A and B story that follows our characters, the timeline offered up a really great C story that grounded us in what was happening at that time. Because it’s Barbie, I definitely wanted to stay close to pop culture references and Black entertainment and things that were happening historically within the Black community, so it just seemed like a fun little Easter egg like “Rhythm Nation,” and be like, “Oh my gosh,” [this] transported [me] back to being a little Lagueria.

Did you know from the start that you’d recreate Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test for today?

Sitting down with the kids and the researchers, that focus group was there early on and we were re-imagining the doll test, but of course it wasn’t crystal clear. When we sat down with some of our advisors and experts who have studied the doll test, my mind quickly changed to rethinking the doll test, so we’d have something similar to the original test where we asked the kids the same questions, but then after sitting down with a few of the experts, we decided to rethink it and not necessarily have forced questions for the kids to answer. We wanted to make it playful and then we wanted to bring in experts to talk about what the kids were saying and what we were seeing with the kids, so everything was an evolution. It didn’t become fully fleshed out until we really started to make the film.

Your own embrace of Black Barbie becomes quite moving, though I was a little skeptical when I have to imagine the time and patience it took to create some of those stop-motion animation sequences might’ve put you off.

I definitely am a fan. I can honestly say that, and this is something we didn’t get on camera, but I wish we had, because the very first time I saw a Black Barbie was with [collector] Billie J. Green’s interview and she brought her Black Barbie to set and I got quite emotional. I can’t even front. I got teary-eyed and on one hand, I’m glad we don’t have it, but on the other, I wish my DP would have been like, “We’re rolling in on Lagueria seeing Black Barbie for the first time.” And I gave a little speech [to the crew], like “This is our namesake. Here she is.” And it was quite something to be able to hold her and really feel that intentionality that the researchers talk about in the documentary. It’s something different. so I will have to say that I’ve been won over and am now an owner of many Barbie dolls at this point in time.

When so many of these dolls are collectors items, was it actually hard to get your hands on some of them?

Yes and no. Thankfully, we brought in a stop motion animation studio to do all of that heavy lifting and they were able to find the dolls that you see in the film, so I can’t even speak to how hard it was. I know they talked to us about [how] it’s really hard to find this doll or this doll, but they made it happen, so kudos to Fonco Animation.

When this has been in the works for some time, what’s it like to be reaching the point of letting it loose in the world?

I don’t even think it’s fully sunken in just yet that we’re here. It’s going to take next weekend when we actually premiere at South By and experiencing the film with the audience [when] the weight of where we’re at in this journey will finally really hit me. But it’s been a ride for sure and I feel grateful to be at this point.

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” will screen at SXSW on March 11th at 11 am at the Alamo Lamar B, March 14th at 2 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 1 and 2:30 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 3 and March 15th at 2:15 pm at Alamo Lamar C.

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