As you all already know, Rachel Dolezal is the former president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP who in 2015 was revealed to be a white woman posing as black. There’s not much else that can be said about that particular moment that hasn’t already been said.
Instead, Laura Brownson’s Netflix documentary The Rachel Divide, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, picks up soon after, detailing how this once-respected civil rights activist attempted to claw her way out of national ostracization.
What is particularly grabbing about The Rachel Divide is how it gives context to Dolezal’s sympathetic upbringing, without painting her as a sympathetic figure, which is mostly a result of her own doing. Dolezal has always claimed that she identifies as black and has since adopted the label of “transblack,” which raises the idea of self-identification, white privilege (the argument that a black woman could not try to pose as white is raised several times) and disassociation.
As one of the interview subjects says, there can be “more than one truth.”
Dolezal believes that “race is a social construct,” a notion that has been loudly shot down by the public in the three-year conversation her story has inspired. She claims she’s living an authentic life that represents her genuine self, yet bristles at any and all counterarguments thrown her way.
Is she a fraud? An egomaniacal charlatan?
The documentary’s interview subjects believe so, and Dolezal’s comments and actions do little to convince you that she is remorseful or has even given any serious consideration as to why she offended so many in the first place. Her steadfast refusal to acknowledge the opposing view seems to also be a sore spot with both of her sons, who form a crucial foundation for the story.
Dolezal’s scandal raises the questions: are we supposed to live how we feel and is there a right or wrong way to overcome an abusive childhood?
The Rachel Divide, which speaks far more to her internal struggle than any outward polarization, positions her troubled upbringing at the hands of religious white parents who adopted and then also abused black children as the root of her self-identification. It is in this layered web where you can explore the complexities of disassociation.
Despite gaining a deeper understanding of Dolezal’s unfortunate circumstances, the woman herself does little to assuage any of the public’s outcries against her.
Brownson and her team document Dolezal’s often disastrous media appearances across the country, in which she continues to insist that she has no regrets. She then appears shocked any time an interviewer asks questions about her deceit rather than her views on race. She takes each inquiry as a personal slight, even when interviewers approach the subject respectfully.
The behavior paints a picture of someone who is completely lacking in self-awareness and naive to the point of provincially dismissive.
Her choices, compounded by the documentary, appear to be an anchor around the lives of her loved ones. Dolezal’s campaign to be understood and to “prove” that she never lied has disrupted their lives to the point that 19-year-old Isaiah, her adopted brother who has become her adopted son, leaves for an overseas trip and her 13-year-old son Franklin confesses to having no friends. A sexual assault case brought against Dolezal’s biological brother by their adopted sister Esther was thrown out soon after Dolezal’s story broke.
The only job of a parent is to raise your kid in a “childhood they don’t have to recover from,” Izaiah says of his abusive time with Dolezal’s birth parents.
But haven’t Dolezal’s own mistakes and single-minded crusade done exactly that?
Check out The Rachel Divide when it arrives on Netflix on April 27 and decide for yourself.