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American Black Film Festival: Black Barbie, Gaining Ground, Higher Power

"Black Barbie: The Documentary," directed and written by Lagueria Davis, is a must see! Vivid colors, thorough data analysis and interviews, and an unblemished storyline anchor the film. The documentary follows the journey of three former workers of Mattel, the company behind Barbie, and the strides they made for the original Black Barbie doll and the Black Barbie dolls following her creation. Beulah Mae Mitchell is the grandmother of Lagueria Davis, and sparked Davis’ inspiration for the film. Mitchell worked as a toy maker and receptionist at Mattel. Kitty Black Perkins is the creator of the original Black Barbie, and she hired her protege, Stacey McBride Irby, who then went on to create lines of Black Barbie’s like “So In Style (S.I.S.),” and the AKA Centennial Barbie.

“She’s Black. She’s beautiful. She’s dynamite,” served as the tagline of the first Black Barbie, “Christie.” Her bold colors and jewelry, inspired by Perkins’ own style, embody the fullness of Black womanhood, which is eye-opening to see on the big screen.

The mental and psychological impacts of the lack of Black toys in the toy industry are diligently expressed in the film. A comparable social experiment to the “Clark Doll Test” is displayed in the documentary, and the reactions of the new-age children are some of the most memorable scenes.

Davis' use of interpersonal connectedness, high production value, and moments of Barbie-play evoke emotions of happiness, sadness, and celebration for Black Barbie. She is glorified, dignified, and all-around fabulous, and as an audience member, I wish I had known of her before 2023.

Unknowingly I attended the premiere in a pink wrap dress, and a wrap dress served as the original outfit of Black Barbie. Like Davis, I did not grow up enjoying playing with Barbies. In fact, I sold all of my Barbie dolls to my cousin. But after watching the film from Davis’ perspective, I grew a love for her that I never had. Davis’ film is so powerful it forces growth.

“Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land” is a documentary that follows different Black landowners and farmers, expressing the highs and lows of Black land stewardship. This is not a film on the ills of industrial farming and capitalism but an invitation for Black people to gain capital and land sustainability. The film focuses on the implications around “Heir’s Law,” which, according to Cornell Law, is "a person who inherits, or has a right of inheritance in, the property of a person who has died intestate.The law varies from state to state, but the general idea is applicable nationwide.

“Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land” is impeccably shot; the magnificence of the landscapes and the pride exuded by its rightful owners was a great effort by the filmmaker. Director and writer Eternal Polk stated, “I just wanted everything to be beautiful,” and that intentionality is executed throughout its entirety. Wide shots of vast land and its Black owners sitting at its center is a dream made tangible. Seeing sophisticated farming technologies used by Black farmers is not a common picture; Polk’s input of this vivid imagery shows class and honor to the community. The stacking and intersecting of interviews show the complexity of issues regarding access to this livelihood and serve as great motivators to an audience unsure what to do with “heir property," described as documented estate planning, which the process of will writing and estate planning is given in the film.

Historical recollections are stated in detail regarding the status of Black land ownership. Although it is painful to hear repetitively in media, understanding that the economic foundation of white people collapsed at the end of slavery and that sharecropping was the alternative to their extinction, is imperative to the wholeness of the American experience. Polk pulls no punches, and interviewees like Civil Rights Activist Shirley Sherrod illuminate how to win in opposition to American systems.

The film gives a clear action plan for Black landowners unsure of what to do with their American-owned land. Produced by John Deere and its L.E.A.P. initiative, there is an underlying tone of trying to fix a systemic and industrial issue: the lack of Black land and Black farmer representation in the U.S. The problem is addressed, and solutions are offered in the film, but the negative societal impacts John Deere created in time’s past are not lost on its audience.

“Land represents generational wealth,” and as the original land stewards of this planet, films like Gaining Ground: The Fight for Black Land" are fruitful representations of the everlasting abundance of Black life. “Own a piece of the rock.” 

"Higher Power," written by Rafi Aliya Crockett and Dewey Ortiz Jr., illuminates the realities Washingtonians face without statehood, senator representation, and full rights regarding marijuana sales and usage. An eclectic mix of topics is blended well by first-time filmmaker Rafi Aliya Crockett, who is extremely passionate about the work needed to give Washingtonians equitable rights as citizens without statehood, “no taxation without representation--just not for Washingtonians,” she states. The high taxes Washingtonians pay is also discussed throughout the film, and their ability for self-determination in a highly politicized region remains “elusive” even after the film. The film does not wrap up with actionable steps for audience members to help the cause, which makes it feel a little incomplete.

According to the filmmakers Rafi Aliya Crockett and Dewey Ortiz Jr., "Higher Power" was initially meant to highlight Black business owners to show that they can make strides in the marijuana industry in D.C., despite the limited access to dispensary ownership. The positives of marijuana usage are expressed through laughing and singing, which create an inviting essence to the film.

Centered around the push for Washington D.C. to become the 51st state of the U.S., the nuances of the matter are revealed in the film through clearly answered interviews, graphic illustrations of data, and court hearings.

To demystify the court and to make the issue deemed a fixable one, "Higher Power" filmmakers are working with initiatives to promote the film outside of D.C. because Washingtonians cannot vote for themselves, people with statehood must send their congressmen to fight on their behalf, which they stated at a Q&A post-premiere.

The filmmakers are modeling their push for further marijuana accessibility and political advocacy based on an initiative out of Evanston, Illinois, that uses $1M in tax revenue from marijuana sales toward reparations for black people that have been impacted by prior criminalization of marijuana.

Formerly known as Chocolate City because of its high population of Black residents, Washington D.C. is a current example of the racial, economic, political, and societal ills of the U.S. governmental system. "Higher Power" serves as a persuasive vessel for its reconciliation if it can land in actionable hands.

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