I’m so thrilled to be covering the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas for the first time this weekend. I recently got to watch great two documentaries that had their world premiere at the festival, both centering around Black women and how they uplifted Black people, while examining the roles race and representation play in our society. Below, find my reviews of This World is Not My Own, about folk artist Nellie Mae Rowe, and Black Barbie: A Documentary.
THIS WORLD IS NOT MY OWN dir. Opendox (Petter Ringborn and Marquis Stillwell)
Nellie Mae Rowe nicknamed her home in Vinings, Georgia “The Playhouse.” The folk artist populated it with her many creations: handmade dolls and sculptures and colorful drawings. Born in 1900 to a sharecropper and a former slave, Nellie didn’t grow up with much, didn’t have a formal education, but her imagination came alive through her art, which she did not for money or fame but because she felt propelled by a God-given gift. It wasn’t until the last few years of her life and after, when gallery owner Judith Alexander took notice and began procuring and selling her work, that the world at large began noticing her too. Today, Nellie’s work is exhibited in museums around the country, from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
This World is Not My Own works its way through Nellie’s life chronologically, from her upbringing to her last years and her lasting impact. But as remarkable as her story is on its own, the documentary uses her life and work as a jumping off point to examine larger issues of race and art and the ways they intersect, particularly through Nellie’s work, having lived through the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The film is divided into four chapters, along with an interlude about a notorious murder and subsequent trial, but even the segments that seemingly don’t tie directly into Nellie’s story always come back around. The range of people interviewed on camera for the film include gallery curators who can speak to the artistic merit of Nellie’s work, but also Nellie’s living relatives, whose sometimes conflicting accounts or uncertain memories further create a mystique around the film’s subject.
This World is Not My Own also strives for a level of creativity that would make Nellie proud. Animations are used to bring her memories and artwork to life. Most impressively, narrative storytelling is merged with the film’s more traditional documentary filmmaking techniques. Miniature sets of Nellie’s Playhouse and animated characters created through motion capture technology being Nellie and Judith to life, imagining the interactions they may have had (Uzo Aduba plays Nellie and Amy Warren plays Judith, both providing the physical actions and the voice). These moments are used to lead into topics of conversation, such as Nellie’s affinity for wrestling, particularly Claude “Thunderbolt” Patterson, a Black wrestler who was blacklisted by the National Wrestling Alliance for repeatedly calling out the sport’s institutionalized racism. These animated segments may not be necessary from a storytelling standpoint, but they do add another intimate piece to this already impressively layered and rich film that inventively elevates the material.
This World is Not My Own had its world premiere at the SXSW film festival on March 11, with additional screenings on March 12 at 11 am, March 15 at 4 pm and 4:30 pm, and March 18 at 11:45 am. Runtime: 97 minutes.
BLACK BARBIE: A DOCUMENTARY dir. Lagueria Davis
When I was a kid, I wanted a Black Barbie doll because she looked different from the many white, blonde Barbies I already owned. But whereas my desire for that doll was more of a superficial want, for little Black children, it was a need, a crucial turning point for seeing themselves positively represented in media. Lagueria Davis’ first feature film, Black Barbie: A Documentary examines the story behind the development of the first Black Barbie doll in the 1970s (different from friends of Barbie like Christy, it’s important to note), finding a personal angle both in her own dislike of dolls (something Davis notes in a voiceover at the start of the film and reiterates throughout) and her connection to her aunt, Beulah Mae Mitchell, who worked at Mattel for 45 years and paved the way for other Black women to enter the company and help shape it in new ways, while also posing the question: why not make a doll that looks like me?
A lot of viewers probably aren’t aware of the history of the first Black Barbie—in fact, a lot of the interviewees don’t seem to be either when they are shown the doll, complete with afro, form-fitting dress with cut-outs, and a face with features molded to match those of Black people more closely. That’s a fascinating subject on its own, but Davis uses the dolls as a gateway to discuss race and representation at large, including a lengthy segment toward the end of the film that revolves around focus groups with children of various ages participating and offering their opinions on Barbie, with a group of experts later discussing and analyzing the results. That all sounds very clinical, but their thoughts are expressed in a lucid and energetic way.
What’s also wonderful about Black Barbie: A Documentary is how far from being one-sided it is. Where one shot will consist of a current Mattel official describing the steps the company is taking to increase representation for people of color in their brand, the next will be someone refuting that or offering a different opinion. Where one shot will be a Black woman writer for the series of animated Barbie vlogs on YouTube talking about how they adapted their messaging in the wake of George Floyd’s 2020 murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, the next will be someone voicing the opinion that it’s performative, that the company still isn’t doing enough to place a Black Barbie at the center of her own story. Barbie has become such an iconic pop culture figure since her introduction in the 1960s, transcending her beginnings as just a toy. With Greta Gerwig’s buzzy upcoming narrative feature “Barbie” poised to make the doll as we traditionally view her (i.e. white and blonde) even more prevalent in the collective consciousness, the story of Black Barbie A Documentary—the fierce Black women who worked thorough the ranks of a predominantly white industry to create her, and the statement she continues to make today— is more pressing than ever.
Black Barbie: A Documentary had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 11, with additional screenings to be held on March 14 at 2 pm and 2:30 pm and March 15 at 2:15 pm. Runtime: 100 minutes.