What it's about: Rachel Dolezal is a controversial figure, to say the least. In 2015 she was prospering as an activist and as the president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. A local news investigation uncovered and ran with the story that Dolezal was not an African American as she was portraying herself, but was born to two white parents in Montana. The controversy instantly became a media firestorm. Dolezal resigned her position, lost teaching appointments, but remained in the public eye. In the years following the scandal, Dolezal has continued to identify as black and the debate over the consequences of her identity continues on.
I learned about the Rachel Dolezal situation after the fact, pretty recently, possibly around the time when The Rachel Divide, Laura Brownson's Netflix documentary was announced. Honestly, reading only the particulars made me uncomfortable enough not to really dive into the larger issues that were going on here.
In some ways, that probably helped with my experience with The Rachel Divide, because I imagine knowing more about Dolezal and the incredibly hot discourse around her life and lifestyle could make this a pretty surface-level doc in some ways. There are some interesting things within the film, from its intimate approach to the way it profiles Dolezal. In some ways it is satisfyingly thorough. It will definitely frustrate those looking for specific things.
The opening title sequence is used to build Dolezal's highlights as a civil rights leader in Spokane, running through snippets of speeches at rallies and protests. As soon as the credits are over, it cuts directly to the famous news clip of Rachel being bluntly asked if she is black and her response of walking off camera. This sets up the focus of The Rachel Divide -- the minimum of her success before diving right into the juicy stuff.
The Rachel Divide isn't unfair to her, though. Most of the documentary is spent in candid moments of her family life and seeing her simply live is important to understand her. The doc gives her the chance to show off who she really is, a common desire talking point of whenever she's done interviews over the years.
But identity is such a slippery topic for her that I don't know exactly how much insight The Rachel Divide really gives. We see how much she is affected by the public and media reaction. That's not nothing. But if you are coming to the film to see an open-hearted reckoning for her choices, The Rachel Divide has trouble there.
This isn't completely at the fault of Brownson: when we see Dolezal talking with African Americans [either through media footage or in one particular scene where she visits a college in Cincinnati to talk about her experiences], she consistently shuts down. Her frustration is evident and I'm willing to believe she is internalizing the anger and pain of others, but she never has a thorough reaction.
This begs the question: Can she really have an appropriate and satisfying response? I don't know what Brownson's ultimate goal was in making The Rachel Divide, though I expect she wanted that big moment that never comes.
Another central struggle the film portrays is the line between Rachel's desire to be a private person vs. her being opportunistic. People express their anger throughout the film that Dolezal only is able to get this kind of attention because she is, in reality, white. Another has a harsher opinion on how she uses her family to cement her representation, using them to gain attention.
By the end of the film, what stands out most is how incredibly sad this whole situation really is. Dolezal has obvious faults but she isn't totally without sympathy and The Rachel Divide knows that. Elements of her family backstory, which I didn't know about going in, are really tough. At least in my experience, I had no issues fully believing many of Rachel's claims about her past and family struggles, despite how the media held up her obvious lies to discredit these other aspects of her life story.
If Dolezal doesn't become something of a tragic figure by the end of the film, there is no question that her children do. Her two sons [her biological son Franklin and Izaiah, who was adopted and raised by Dolezal's parents before she later received custody of him] best express the toll this has taken on their lives and society. Them being able to open up publicly about their mother [and it isn't all completely positive] must have been incredibly hard, but I hope it was helpful in some way, too.