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Netflix’s ‘Black Barbie’ explores the creation of a doll that impacted generations


If last year was the summer of "Barbie," a new Netflix documentary hopes this will be the summer of "Black Barbie." That's the title of a new documentary on Netflix that tells the story of the first Black Barbie doll. That doll arrived in 1980, more than two decades after the 1959 launch of the first Barbie. Mattel did introduce Black fashion dolls in the late 1960s, but they were not named Barbie, and they were marketed as Barbie's friends. So the arrival of a true Black Barbie was an important moment.

PATRICIA TURNER: It allowed the Black girl to be the heroine of the story. In all of the imagined play with Barbie, she's the center of attention. She's the belle of the ball. She's who you would want to be.

CHANG: That is Patricia Turner, a professor from UCLA who was interviewed in the film. The documentary was produced by Shonda Rhimes, who has a Barbie modeled after her. The film was written and directed by filmmaker Lagueria Davis. She started working on the film after she discovered a surprising family connection to the doll. Davis shared her story.

LAGUERIA DAVIS: My relationship to Barbie was pretty much nonexistent growing up. I really wasn't much into dolls. I preferred kind of playing with remote-control cars and books. I met my aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, twice before moving to LA. So when I was little, she came to Texas. And I knew that she worked for Mattel. But I did not know her full story until I moved to LA in 2011. And I stayed with her, and I slept in a room full of dolls. And it was then that I learned her story of being at Mattel for almost 45 years and working on that first Barbie line. And I was like, wow, what?


DAVIS: So how did you strike up this friendship with your boss?

BEULAH MAE MITCHELL: I worked on the lines, and she would come through and watch us, and we would be working so fast. And she would say, do you have any suggestions of what I should do? In '60 and '61, they say, well, we want a Black Barbie. She say, well, good. We'll see.

DAVIS: She was one of the first Black employees to work in their corporate offices. She was the first Black woman to work in their corporate offices. And so she basically laid the groundwork in the '60s at this corporation of Mattel so that it kind of enabled the next step of hiring the first Black woman designer at Mattel, who would then go on to design the very first Black Barbie, Kitty Black Perkins.


KITTY BLACK PERKINS: When I designed this doll, there was a need for the little Black girl to really have something she could play with that looked like her. I wanted her just to reflect the total look of a Black woman.

DAVIS: Listening to my Aunt Beulah talk about being on that first Barbie line and wanting a Black Barbie, I felt myself, for the first time, relating to a doll as an adult.


DAVIS: You know, I've said that it's a doll. It's a piece of plastic. And having an understanding that it would take 21 years for a Black fashion doll to be worthy of the Barbie brand name, it just wasn't lost on me that if that would be the struggle for a piece of plastic, an object, what must it really feel like to navigate, you know, white spaces as a Black woman, much like, you know, my aunt being one of the first Black women in the corporate offices, Kitty Black Perkins being one of the first Black women designers at Mattel?


DAVIS: You know, we have a film here for Black women about Black women by Black women. And, you know, oftentimes, the narrative is that our stories, our content, the things that we do don't perform and, essentially, at times, aren't worthy and doesn't matter. And in our film, we - I hope what we communicate is that it does matter.


CHANG: The documentary "Black Barbie" is streaming on Netflix.

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Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Jeanette Woods
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Linnea E. Anderson
[Copyright 2024 NPR]