After working for years as president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal made national headlines in 2015 when it was revealed that she was a white woman — a designation she staunchly rejected, saying she identified as black. Laura Brownson’s intimate and canny “The Rachel Divide” picks up with Dolezal shortly after that tumultuous moment and charts her uneasy process of self-definition in the searing media spotlight. The portrait it paints is sure to confound and infuriate in equal measure. Far from simply a snapshot of a discussion about race, Brownson’s documentary is a riveting account of self-sabotage, misplaced priorities, and obstinacy run amok. Following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it should be a big draw on Netflix.
The film’s title refers far more to Dolezal’s internal struggle than to the debate surrounding her, since virtually everyone featured in Brownson’s doc, either in new interviews, TV clips or online videos, views her as a fraud. The primary discussion to be found here, then, concerns the degree to which her charade is offensive. Decried as cultural appropriation and an example of “white privilege” (since many here posit that no black would be allowed to perform such a reverse ruse), Dolezal is constantly met by a barrage of censure. That criticism is so often articulated clearly and forcefully — especially by her former Spokane NAACP comrades Kitara Johnson and Latoya Brackett, who portray Dolezal as an imposter who used her African-American children’s persecution to legitimize her own subterfuge – that it’s difficult to buy Dolezal’s own argument that she’s black because “race is a social construct.”
Though there’s no dispute over Dolezal’s biological race, “The Rachel Divide” insightfully plumbs her painful childhood at the hands of white religious fundamentalists — who also adopted black children that they subsequently abused — as a way of pinpointing why she came to view herself as black. Those sequences lay out the complex intersections of alienation, marginalization and cruelty that first compelled the young woman to develop in the way that she did. As an adult, Dolezal darkened her skin, braided her hair, and eventually made claims about receiving hate mail at the NAACP office that motivated journalists to dig deeper into her backstory. As reporter Shawn Vestal argues, Dolezal’s contentions about discrimination may have been true; the problem was that no one quite knew what to believe because she was so untrustworthy.
There’s unavoidable irony in the fact that, by pretending to be an oppressed African-American, Dolezal wound up becoming an actual pariah. As the documentary makes clear, that status was of her own making, solidified by her refusal to back down once the public had spoken up in opposition to her attempts to redefine herself as “trans-racial” (or, later, “trans-black”). Her bullheaded desire to keep pressing her points — even in the face of overwhelming objection and condemnation — imparts a sense of a delusional woman too stubborn to recognize the situation.
That’s most true with regards to Dolezal’s sister Esther, adopted son Izaiah and biological son Franklin, whose lives have been upended (potentially irrevocably) by her continuing campaign. In their plight, “The Rachel Divide” — smartly edited by Jeff Gilbert and unobtrusively scored by Mark Degli Antoni — lays bare Dolezal’s decision to prioritize her own crusade over the welfare of loved ones. A stunning final scene demonstrates that she has yet to learn from her mistakes. Consequently, Brownson’s clear-sighted doc proves a tragic case study of a fundamental truth: If you tell a big enough lie, and then refuse to admit to it even when everyone knows you’re lying, you not only lose all credibility, you hurt yourself and those for whom you’re supposedly fighting.