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Netflix (and Shondaland) Is Bringing Us a Black Barbie Documentary

The documentary will be released on June 19 on Netflix

Shondaland, the powerhouse behind hits like Bridgerton and Inventing Anna, is back with a new Netflix venture—and this time, it’s a documentary. Executive produced by Shonda Rhimes herself, the film delves into the groundbreaking campaign for a Black Barbie, chronicling the incredible journey of the women who made it happen.

“If you’ve gone your whole life and you’ve never seen anything made in your own image, there is damage done,” explains Rhimes. The documentary, a profound exploration of representation—or the lack thereof–shines a light on the efforts of three remarkable women at Mattel in the 1970s who fought to bring a Black Barbie to life. 

It wasn’t that long ago that there were no Black dolls. It took 21 years from Barbie’s conception in 1959 for the first official Black Barbie to be introduced to the world in 1980. Soon, in 15 days, the story behind how it happened will be widely seen for the first time.

According to a Netflix synopsis, the documentary focuses on “the impact of three Black women at Mattel responsible for the Black Barbie debut in 1980: Beulah Mae Mitchell [the documentary’s director, Lagueria Davis, is her niece], Kitty Black Perkins, and Stacey McBride Irby.” Through insider interviews and engaging retellings, the film reveals what happened behind the scenes at Mattel leading up to Black Barbie’s debut. It underscores the importance of true representation, showing how dolls are more than just toys—they are childhood symbols crucial to identity formation and imagination.

Black Barbie debuted at this year’s SXSW and the cut of the film was met with widespread acclaim. Now, Rhimes and Betsy Beers have signed on to the team of executive producers as part of Shondaland’s overall deal with Netflix.

Mitchell was on the first Barbie production line at Mattel before becoming one of the first Black employees at the company’s corporate offices. Her campaign for a Black Barbie began in the early 1960s, shortly after she started working at Mattel. The journey took 20 years and was propelled by Perkins, who based the doll on Diana Ross, and later by doll designer Irby, who was brought on to complete the project.

Aaliyah Williams, one of the film’s producers, tells Shondaland the documentary is “really a love letter to Black women in this beautiful way, and women overall during this time.” Furthermore, the documentary illustrates Barbie’s lasting impact on self-image, beauty, identity, and imagination, featuring commentary from historians and scholars. 

Throughout the documentary, all three women emphasize the significance of representation—not just in the realm of dolls and the impact on children’s development, but also in the workplace and the broader changes it can inspire.

The documentary’s message is far-reaching. Variety notes that it examines “the repressed record of Black life in the United States,” making it a sometimes challenging watch. Two female interviewees reportedly break down as they recount how the absence of dolls that looked like them exacerbated their feelings of isolation in white-dominated spaces and contributed to a sense of invisibility and a lack of beauty in a world dominated by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ideal of 1959.

Set to debut on June 19 on the streaming platform, the documentary is a must-watch for anyone interested in the intersection of culture, identity, and social change.

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