The Rachel Divide

Studio: Netflix
Directed by Laura Brownson

Apr 27, 2018 Web Exclusive
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If you don’t know who Rachel Dolezal is, the first five minutes of Laura Brownson’s documentary has got you covered. Introducing her subject with a dizzying montage of talking heads, sound bites, and news footage, she gives you everything you need to know about Dolezal and the controversy that’s made her a pariah. But more than just catching viewers up to speed, Brownson also sneaks in her film’s mission statement through those sound bites. When one journalist compares Dolezal to a human Rorschach test, someone who could look like a hustler to one person or someone struggling with “the complexities of life” to another, she may as well be describing how The Rachel Divide presents its subject.

Brownson followed Dolezal and her family around for months after the 2015 revelation that Dolezal, the N.A.A.C.P. chapter president of Spokane, Wash., was actually a white woman claiming to be African-American. The documentary paints a sad picture of her life as a shut-in and vilified local personality after becoming a national laughing stock. And while Dolezal herself is a hard person to feel sorry for, her two teenage sons are another story entirely. Brownson’s film is at its most compelling when it grapples with how the fallout of being a disgraced public figure can affect the people closest to them.

As to how the viewer is supposed to feel about Dolezal, Brownson offers plenty of ammunition for both sides. She has more people in her corner than you’d think: family members, clients from her working-from-home ethnic hair business, even an African-American male teacher who confesses to feeling like a “white woman” on the inside. Even people who are deeply skeptical of Dolezal, including journalists who investigated her and local N.A.A.C.P. members who felt burned by the revelation of her “transracial” identity, admit that she did seem to have her heart in the right place when she was organizing Black Lives Matters rallies in Spokane and calling attention to police brutality.

But Brownson takes pains to show how Dolezal’s deceptions dealt irreparable harm to the community. One N.A.A.C.P. member points out how Dolezal has ruined the organization’s credibility in Spokane, while Dolezal’s own sister admits that being associated with her most likely led to a sexual assault case that she was the alleged victim in getting thrown out of court. While The Rachel Divide seems to paint a sympathetic portrait of Dolezal as a well-meaning and possibly delusional woman, it doesn’t sugarcoat that her lies negatively impacted a lot of people.

As the subject of a documentary, Dolezal is both an intriguing and draining presence. One talking head’s remark that Dolezal makes everything about her is painfully on the money: a good chunk of the film is Dolezal loudly and vocally struggling in a hell of her own making. She seems to be someone who desperately needs more self-awareness: a particularly telling moment is when she bemoans not being able to find another job in Africana studies since her fall from grace. It’s as if it doesn’t even occur her how obvious it is that she’ll never get another job like that again.

The biggest criticism one can level against Brownson is that she doesn’t directly engage with her subject more often. The most riveting section of the film is its conclusion, when Brownson openly questions Dolezal and pushes her to answer some uncomfortable questions. The tension between the two of them in those moments yields some fascinating insights into Dolezal’s past and into her conception of herself.

On a visual level, The Rachel Divide shows the same eye for detail and capturing evocative urban backdrops that Brownson showed in 2011’s Lemon. She gives us enough of a sense of the beauty and landscape of Spokane to show how trapped Dolezal feels in her home. And she has a great eye for reaction shots: the exasperated faces and side-eye Dolezal gets while doing talk shows and lectures speaks volumes about how people view her.

Towards the end of the film, Dolezal goes to the DMV to get her name changed to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Some people, in the face of such intense backlash, would repudiate their past; Dolezal doubles-down, embracing her self-identity as a black woman even further.

“It’s as painless as that,” a DMV employee tells her after Dolezal fills out some forms, sending her over to get a new photo ID. It’s a brief moment, but one that sums up the privilege that Dolezal is accused of abusing. For African-Americans, their identity is something that is inescapable and hard-won - constantly being contested by other people in their community, co-opted by other cultures, and putting them at risk in the eyes of the law. For Dolezal, assuming that identity is as easy as checking off an extra box on her census form and writing in a new name.




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