The Rachel Divide Won't Make You Like Rachel Dolezal But It Might Help You Understand Her

In 2016, Netflix released a documentary about the now-exonerated Amanda Knox, painting the formerly convicted murderer as both victim and unreliable narrator, thereby stirring fervent Twitter debate. The streaming giant has reprised the tactic for its new film on Rachel Dolezal, a woman who has drawn near-constant ire and mockery online for her 'transracial identity' since she came to prominence in 2015.

Dolezal’s name is shorthand for anyone brazenly partaking in cultural appropriation, or generally being misguided about race

On Twitter and beyond, Dolezal’s name is shorthand for anyone brazenly partaking in cultural appropriation, or generally being misguided about race (Kanye West, among others, has been accused of 'Dolezaling'). Pictures of the former NAACP president and civil rights activist complete with Afro-style weave often pop up as punchlines where non-wokeness is concerned. (Too much fake tan? Dolezaling. Misunderstanding racial politics? Dolezaling.) Even so, a film about Dolezal feels almost gratuitous, especially when the spotlight is rarely shone on the actual atrocities being committed against black Americans (highlighted brilliantly by the latest Childish Gambino video, "This Is America").
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Her ability to offend may be great, but the reality of her life – now spent braiding hair for cash in her kitchen – is really rather small

However, while Dolezal’s flimsy understanding of blackness and 'feeling black' is part of the film, it is not the whole. We also get a window into her dysfunctional family life with sons Isaiah (black, adopted) and Franklin (mixed race, biological); her complicated background and abusive, hyper religious birth parents; the extent to which her life in Spokane, Washington, is now that of a pariah. In many ways this lonely small-town existence is the antithesis of who Rachel Dolezal – the brand – is to us, the audience. Her ability to offend may be great, but the reality of her life – now spent braiding hair for cash in her kitchen – is really rather small.
The Rachel Divide is a three-act play: you get the before, during and after of how one woman’s identity made international headlines. You also get news clips and interviews with Dolezal, and a touch of context about identity politics in 2018, although it’s far from an in-depth analysis. In lieu of well-known talking heads, instead we meet Dolezal and her closest allies – her children; her sister; the man, Albert Wilkerson, who she previously claimed was her father. It’s a difficult watch at times; her younger son, Franklin, often appears frazzled, admitting to being emotionally drained by his mother’s behaviour at one point and wishing she would just admit she's white. There is also much on her parents, Larry and Ruthanne, who mistreated their adopted black children and aimed to raise them with no connection to their ethnicity, setting off a chain of trauma that any armchair Freud can see is deeply connected to Dolezal The Elder’s own perception of race.
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The most unsavoury strand of all is the allegations of sexual abuse made by Dolezal and her adopted sister Esther against their older brother. There’s a sinking sense of 'the boy who cried wolf' about the whole episode; no one would believe Dolezal because of her propensity for fantasy, claims Esther, and legal proceedings against her brother crumbled.
And yet, Rachel Dolezal never quite hits the level of sympathetic protagonist, floating around the ‘tragic heroine’ mark before the end of the documentary once again posits her as a delusional woman who may even be fabricating her own hate mail. Why, filmmaker Laura Brownson asks at one point, are you still on social media if it causes you so much grief? Framing the film around her family life also creates a sense of unaccountability, and even the potential for pity (even more so when she gives birth to another child, Langston, who she is bringing up alone). Even so, the gap between what Rachel Dolezal became online – a proto-Get Out character, a supposed liar, a moron – and what we get on screen is a revelation. While still hugely problematic, we see the human side of someone scared, stubborn, traumatised and ignorant, whose real life is far more banal than the memes she inspired.
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