The Rachel Dolezal Documentary Isn’t Going To Change Anyone’s Mind

In 2018, is any audience really in the mood to watch a film that wants to have a nuanced conversation about Rachel Dolezal and race?

Rachel Dolezal, the white woman whose deliberate misidentification as a black woman was notoriously uncovered in a Spokane, Washington, local news interview that went viral in 2015, is the subject of a new Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide, which premiered Friday. When the film was announced early last month alongside a trailer, it struck a nerve on social media. Many wanted to know why Dolezal, who has become nothing short of an infamous pariah, warranted the focus of an entire documentary, especially within an industry where actual black women are underrepresented.

Much ink has been spilled, along with head scratching and expended energy, trying to understand who Dolezal is and what she wants from claiming blackness. But given a shift in the political mood since Dolezal first entered the national conversation, the weariness surrounding The Rachel Divide is justifiable: No one, it seems, asked for this. It’s easy enough to understand why: Dolezal is a spectacle who takes up more space than many believe she should — so do we really need a documentary about her? The question is as much practical as it is moral. There are plenty of subjects worthy of the documentary treatment (and resources to make them), but here, a white woman masquerading as black has been given the green light instead.

That fact was not lost on The Rachel Divide director Laura Brownson (Lemon, The Rainmaker), who shot the film over two years, beginning just over a month after Dolezal’s "outing" as a white woman. Brownson made it clear that she’s aware there needs to be more films by black women and films that tell black women’s stories. She also said she made choices in The Rachel Divide itself to be inclusive. “People don't just object to Rachel Dolezal for one reason; they have many reasons, one of which is she steals the spotlight from more deserving black women. So, creatively, I felt like it was important to include that,” Brownson told BuzzFeed News, a hint of fatigue in her voice that persisted throughout our interview.

The film is filled with a wide array of voices, from Kitara Johnson and LaToya Brackett, both of whom are black women and Dolezal’s former colleagues from when she led Spokane’s NAACP chapter, to KXLY reporter Jeff Humphrey, who finally exposed Dolezal as white. Her family is also heavily present in the film, painting a somber picture of the impact of Dolezal’s choices on them, and revealing the potential connection between her upbringing and these choices. We see her in intimate settings and public spaces as she navigates her newfound infamy, and her almost pathological confusion as to why society won’t accept her as a “transracial” black woman.

But even as The Rachel Divide provides a sometimes damning and sometimes troubling portrayal of its main character, it stops short of dehumanizing her. Which perhaps, as a white woman, Dolezal would never have been subjected to anyway. There are moments, too, that arouse sympathy — but not the kind that make you want to embrace her. Instead, they’re the kind that leave you hoping she finds the root of whatever it is that haunts or taunts her so she may rejoin the reality the rest of us live in.

For all the fascination surrounding Dolezal, and all the weariness The Rachel Divide may bring, as an intellectual exercise the film may test one’s individual openness to asking questions — without necessarily answering them — about what Dolezal means to a larger discussion on race in America. These are questions that go further than the obvious discussion of Dolezal’s white privilege in attempting to pass as black. One question, in particular, stands out: What does it say about blackness — created in opposition to whiteness, and historically based on the one-drop rule — that Dolezal attempted, and briefly executed, “passing” turned on its head?

Despite Dolezal’s cartoonish persona in our cultural imagination, there aren’t many funny moments in The Rachel Divide. The film mostly evokes a mixed response of discomfort, awe, second-hand embarrassment, and bewilderment. But there is a scene where Dolezal is talking to a black friend, discussing how to navigate being so disliked, to which her friend responds, “Everyone already hates you, so you might as well go on being yourself.” It’s a humorous moment that is telling of Dolezal’s character in the film and beyond — she is committed to living her life as transracial, that much is clear. Brownson, too, can attest to this. “I probably believed that there would be a more traditional character arc with Rachel,” she said. “I did not expect that she would remain as resolute as she has, and so I learned that Rachel as a human being, really sticks to her story. ... She doubles down rather than backs up or readjusts.”

Watching The Rachel Divide with any expectation that Dolezal will have an epiphany is futile — it simply does not come. Despite the social costs to her family, her standing as a public outcast, and the loss of not one but two of her jobs — and job opportunities in general (in the film, she does hair to make ends meet) — Dolezal confirms her status as an unsympathetic character who is unapologetic for her transgressions. The only significant change is that if her wrongdoings seemed minor before, they now take on an enormity that goes beyond simple deception.

To date, writer Ijeoma Oluo has produced the most satisfying piece on Dolezal. Oluo describes Dolezal’s attempt to pass as black as a function of “white supremacy that told an unhappy and outcast white woman that black identity was hers for the taking.” It’s a powerful reading of Dolezal and the media’s fascination with her, and it allows us to come to terms with the unique Americanness of Dolezal's identity claims.

In thinking of Dolezal’s passing as stemming from white supremacy, the connection to another feature of race in the context of US history becomes clear: blackness and the one-drop rule. Blackness, as Western history defines it, is in opposition to whiteness, in order to keep the latter “pure.” The consequence of this desire for white purity manifested in the United States’ one-drop rule — the concept that anyone with any heritage from sub-Saharan Africa is black. The effective result of the one-drop rule is that blackness, unlike whiteness, is not based on an idea of purity. Instead, blackness is open and inclusive because it has had to be to survive, at least in its American construction.

While Oluo, who spent time with Dolezal, says she “looks really, really white,” it is not beyond the imagination to come into contact with a black person, who, both because of the one-drop rule, and even without it — in say, someone who can trace a majority sub-Saharan ancestry — looks like Dolezal and is accepted as black. Of course, someone with that complexion may “pass,” according to the historical understanding of passing, where a black person’s complexion allows them to be seen or identify as white. It’s a lesser-known part of black history in the US, and perhaps one that Dolezal weaponized in her attempt to pass as a black woman.

“I think that is what pisses me off about Rachel Dolezal so much, is that she was kind of able to take advantage of [the inclusivity of blackness] and the fact that black families look different. ... She took advantage of families that look like mine.”

Medium editor Stephanie Georgopulos wrote about passing in 2013 in a piece titled “Coming Out as Biracial.” (Georgopulos and I are friendly acquaintances from media and publishing.) In her piece, Georgopulos, who is biracial and white-passing, describes having white privilege without knowing a fully white or black experience. Georgopulos recently told BuzzFeed News that when she encountered Dolezal in the same way the public did — via the internet — she experienced a feeling of being “torn down,” and having to examine, “Am I like this person?” But Georgopulos also knows that because of her genetic and cultural ties, she is not. “I’ve always felt, other black people, regardless of what color their skin is, can spot each other. I think that is what pisses me off about Rachel Dolezal so much, is that she was kind of able to take advantage of [the inclusivity of blackness] and the fact that black families look different. ... She took advantage of families that look like mine.”

Of course blackness is about much more than presentation and even genealogy — it’s about the many different cultures and subcultures of being black. It’s also about a myriad of black experiences and the suffering that accompanies navigating those experiences. Early on in theThe Rachel Divide, Dolezal’s colleagues at the NAACP paint a picture of a woman who utilized her black sons as conduits to claims of black oppression in order to affirm her (false) blackness. Later in the film, in a scene where Dolezal is a guest discussing what it means to be transracial at a college campus, a woman in the audience challenges Dolezal’s self-proclaimed blackness. Unlike Dolezal, the woman says she has “earned” the right to call herself a black woman because of a litany of negative black experiences she lists, such as being followed in a store.

Black experiences continue to be defined by this sort of suffering, known as “the suffering test,” which relies on the presentation of being seen as visibly black. Setting aside the frustration of defining blackness by pain, what else does this implicate? If our definition of blackness rests on visibility even more than genealogy, then blackness would not be as inclusive as it is now — it would exclude those who pass as white and, perhaps, more. If we then discount visibility in our construction of blackness — and therefore the experiences that might accompany it — and consider only genealogy, do we perpetuate the one-drop rule, despite its connectedness to preserving whiteness and white supremacy? That may result in even the whitest of white people, among other groups, claiming blackness because of some percentage of sub-Saharan African genetic ancestry. Or to avoid that scenario, blackness may exercise a limit to claims on identification based on a random percentage of African ancestry. But even if we could determine what would be the “right” percentage, blackness would lose its inclusivity.

The social construction of race means that there are real consequences of race — such as racism, racial hierarchy, and the racial categories and groups we use today. By definition, groups are exclusive entities where some people are left in and some are left out. We know that whiteness is exclusive, and has gone through great and violent lengths to maintain that exclusivity. And we know where blackness begins, and despite all of Dolezal’s attempts, we know what it is not — it is not her. But in watching The Rachel Divide, and thinking of all the black people who look like this white woman or pass for white, do we know where blackness ends? The inclusivity of blackness is its greatest strength, but is it also a weakness that allows imposters like Dolezal to assume what looks like the final form of cultural appropriation?

At the beginning of the documentary, Izaiah, Dolezal’s adopted brother who became her adopted son, and Franklin, her other young teenage son, are understandably defensive of their mother. By the conclusion of the film, Izaiah is off to Spain seemingly to get away from it all, while Franklin appears to be exasperated by both the filming and his mother’s status as a pariah, and just wants an end to the circus that has become part of their lives. Dolezal is also shown as pregnant, and later, with a healthy baby boy, agonizing over how to racially identify him in what appears to be official forms. Though the boy’s father is black, Dolezal says that in the state of Washington, a child’s race is automatically the mother’s race. (An official at the Washington State Department of Health told BuzzFeed News “that it does not collect the infant’s race on the birth certificate” or “assign a race to the infant.”) On the forms that Dolezal completes, she eventually decides on putting both both black and white for the newborn.

Dolezal’s adopted black sister Esther also appears frequently in the film, and credits Dolezal with introducing her and their other black siblings to some understanding of black culture, and helping her get away from their parents. Esther, Dolezal, and Izaiah all say their parents beat them and their siblings throughout their childhood (although their parents have denied this in previous media interviews). What’s more, Esther said her parents’ eldest son, Joshua, sexually abused her as a child — an allegation that led to Joshua being charged with four counts of sexual assault in Colorado in June 2015. The charges were later dismissed in August of the same year, soon after Dolezal’s identity became national news.

Along with her siblings, Dolezal tells the story of a questionable if not sordid upbringing by her biological parents, Ruthanne and Larry, who, in 2015, confirmed that their daughter is white. Born and raised in Montana, the Dolezals grew up in a strict, fundamentalist Pentecostal home. Fostered by a calling from God, Dolezal’s parents adopted four black children. As Dolezal and Esther recounted the stories of their peculiar childhood in the film, it’s not a reach of the imagination to connect the dots between Dolezal seeing her black siblings as people to save from her parents, and Dolezal seeing their blackness as a way to save herself. Her upbringing, apparently, has as much to do with Dolezal’s claims of blackness as white privilege and white saviorism do. This possible hypothesis, not explicitly made in the film, is certainly stupefying, and perhaps even a stretch because of Dolezal’s own obfuscation of the truth. But against the backdrop of any attempt to understand Dolezal here, it’s a conceivable theory that stands alongside Dolezal’s own whiteness, and also one that comes to life in the film, prompted by Brownson, when Dolezal is at a particularly low point.

“And you know, the harder I sort of pushed Rachel, the harder she pushed back. She does not change.” 

“I felt for two years that Rachel sort of stayed Rachel, and there was a moment where I felt that I really needed to confront her with, This is what I'm seeing in the world, and this is what I think the world would like to see from you and to see you do, and to, perhaps, watch you change. And you know, the harder I sort of pushed Rachel, the harder she pushed back. She does not change,” Brownson said.

In tears, Dolezal suggests to Brownson — only known by her voice, invisible in the scene — that a reversal in her decision would mean her parents’ triumph.

“But in that interview, there's this nugget where she says, I can't go back to being white because I can't go back to being Amish, wearing Amish dresses, and letting my parents win. And I do think that is really the kernel of all of this,” Brownson added. “It doesn't let her off the hook necessarily by including that. I'm saying that I do believe that's how she got to where she did. Had her parents not adopted black children, I don't think Rachel would be who she is.”

But neither The Rachel Divide nor Rachel Dolezal herself is needed for conversations on blackness or whiteness or passing or race. Yet, if the audience can view the documentary, despite its subject, as an opportunity for an intellectual exercise, then it can contribute to larger discussions about race. Still, that may be asking too much of an audience that is likely fed up with the documentary’s central character before they even watch the film — and that might find her completely odious after it.

In the final scenes, Dolezal is seen officially changing her name; Rachel Dolezal becomes Nkechi Amare Diallo. Nkechi, short for Nkechinyere, means “what God has given” in the Nigerian Igbo language; Amare, if she chose it from Latin, means “beloved”; and Diallo means “bold” in Fulani (the Fula people are scattered across West Africa and the Sahel). Dolezal’s cultural appropriation has extended beyond US borders into cultures and peoples older than the US, cultures where the naming of a person is serious business. Though the name change made news last year, it is Dolezal’s last cringeworthy act in the film, preceding a collage of videos from mostly black women disavowing Dolezal’s identity as black or transracial.

Thus, Dolezal begins and ends as an unsympathetic figure. While her intentions are, to this day, theorized about, they will only ever be really known to her. Watching how she navigates the world in the film, she is easy to pathologize — and that is the good news. More than that, she is seen as acting in bad faith, weaponizing white supremacy and the inclusivity of blackness in order to put forward an identity that is not hers. Certainly, The Rachel Divide attempts nuance in conversations bigger than Dolezal, but it may be for an audience that is not open to it because of its central character. Moreover, given the shift in political mood from when Brownson started the film in 2015 to its release in 2018, it’s possible that there’s less tolerance for Dolezal now than there was then.

“Certainly when I started filming with President Obama, identity was the word of the year in 2015. We were having that conversation. We don't have the luxury in some ways of that conversation at the moment, because there are so many bigger, deeper, more frightening issues to deal with. I hope it doesn't mean people react more contentiously to the film,” Brownson said, adding, “I hope that people can see where there is discomfort in a thing, it's worth talking about, it's worth unpacking, and it doesn't have to be at the expense of these other issues that are more relevant and more important. But I guess it's impossible for me to predict.”

Maybe, and maybe not. But judging by first reactions to the trailer and second reactions from critics, Dolezal has already taken up too much space. If people watch the film, if they can get over the ethical dilemma of the film being made at all, they may be in no mood for scholastic rigor. Instead, The Rachel Divide might be watched the same way Dolezal is seen — as a spectacle. If so, it won’t matter what The Rachel Divide does as a piece of film or as a contribution to culture, because the intellectual exercise was doomed before it began. Like Dolezal’s book that sold just over 500 copies — a damning note that concludes the documentary — The Rachel Divide may not be able to overcome its star.

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