Let there be no doubt that the Rachel Dolezal story will be told by Hollywood. The only question is what kind of story will be told?
Ever since the leader of the NAACP’s Spokane, Wash., division was discovered last week to be a Caucasian woman masquerading as an African-American, her still-developing tale has captivated the nation in a way that’s just begging for dramatization.
Sure, the 24-hour news cycle seemingly chews up and spits out this kind of spectacle before moving on to something else 24 hours later. And social media tends to find another target to make its meme du jour even quicker.
But Dolezal isn’t going to be forgotten that easily. More than a few savvy movie producers out there surely already know that.
What separates Dolezal from the rest is the way her story operates on two different levels: It’s both a tabloid freak show that can be enjoyed as pure media circus, but it is also resonant on a deeper level regarding the complex debate over race in America that has been raging lately.
But it’s precisely that duality that makes how Dolezal’s story will be treated an interesting question mark. Will this end up a made-for-TV potboiler that barely skims the surface of this woman’s life, or can this be fodder for the kind of film that lures Oscars?
Which isn’t to say elevating the material would demand it be some weighty thumbsucker either; Dolezal may be better off handled as a comedy than a drama, or somewhere in between those two poles, the way David Fincher did so brilliantly last year in “Gone Girl.”
Regardless of the genre, the bigger suspense regarding how her story will be told is where along a spectrum that runs from Lifetime-level trifle to Weinstein-grade gravitas this will land.
The mere hint of tabloid taint might seem to doom Dolezal’s story to follow in the same disposable manner as “Cleveland Abduction,” a cable retelling of the horrifying kidnapping of several young women that aired last month. But don’t be so sure.
What may make Dolezal most marketable as a movie is there’s got to be more than a few notable actresses champing at the bit to take on a role with the potential to be this memorable. Dolezal has yet to speak directly to this subject, and yet it’s already clear from the footage of this troubled soul all over YouTube that she was a character with a capital C.
That doesn’t mean she’s simply a clown to be caricatured. From what little we know about her at this early stage, there is more to the story than simply dismissing her as mere lunatic. A sympathetic portrait is even possible when you consider the family that ultimately turned on her as well as the controversial notion that singer Keri Hilson has drawn fire for: that her civic-mindedness excuses her highly questionable methods.
Best of all, it’s going to give an actress the tightrope walk of trying to play a white woman who successfully fooled many into thinking she was black for at least a decade. While many on Twitter in recent days have drawn the parallel to a similar role Robert Downey Jr. played for laughs in the comic-action film “Tropic Thunder,” his character was actually a satire of a notion that remains all too true in Hollywood: Viewers and critics love performances that are chameleon-esque to an extreme, and Dolezal is the living embodiment of that.
Ultimately, the creative direction a Dolezal biopic takes will be dictated by whatever twists and turns her saga takes next. If, for instance, her allegations of being abused by her parents as a child turn out to be true, this may not be the stuff of great comedy. But if she conducts herself as oddly in her next media appearances as her track record might suggest she would, playing this as a straight drama just won’t happen.
Regardless, these issues will work themselves out. When the headlines hand Hollywood a story this juicy, it’s only a matter of time.