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‘The Rachel Divide’ Review: Netflix’s Rachel Dolezal Documentary Humanizes a Controversial Figure, But With a Cost

Laura Brownson's intimate documentary can't help but humanize the controversial figure, but it ultimately fails to balance a thorny story.

A film still from THE RACHEL DIVIDE. Courtesy of Netflix.

“The Rachel Divide”

Rachel Dolezal doesn’t get it. In Laura Brownson’s intimate documentary, “The Rachel Divide,” the controversial figure gets another platform to tell her life story as a “transracial” civil rights activist unable to come to terms with the impact of her lies. While the film inspires the kind of empathy that’s so often missing in works that chronicle people ravaged by social media mobs and a vicious news cycle, “The Rachel Divide” lets Dolezal continue to dictate the experience through her own perspective, and even hard-hitting words from a handful of sharp critics are drowned out by Dolezal’s unflagging resistance to facing up to her misdeeds.

At one point in the film, a talking head muses about the various open questions still remaining about Dolezal, coming to the conclusion that two disparate facts about her can both be true at the same time, which eventually emerges as the underlying theme of “The Rachel Divide.” The film can be both an insightful exploration of a person ruined by online mobs and a story about someone deserving of being outed for their lies. It’s both fascinating and infuriating, a brain-bender of a film that pushes emotional buttons without much care for what happens afterwards.

Brownson seems eager to present Dolezal as some kind of Rorschach test — a comparison made via a blunt voiceover during the film’s opening credits, which also includes news footage tracking Dolezal’s successes as an activist, including a stint as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, before it all came crashing down. How you view her and her lies is meant to say something about you. What it says about Dolezal is left more open to interpretation, as Brownson spends so much time close to her subject that it’s nearly impossible for the filmmaker and her work to not humanize her.

The film picks up soon after Dolezal made news in the summer of 2015, after it was revealed that, despite her presentation otherwise, she was actually a white woman pretending to be black. There’s little question that Dolezal’s entire existence was uprooted by the scandal, and she complains throughout the film that since her outing, it’s become “so hard to do normal things.” She wonders if people would prefer she move to Mars (a sad-sack muse that Brownson later channels in a scene set to a distracting cover of David Bowie’s “Life of Mars?”). Dolezal never attempts to grapple with why her masquerade upset so many people, and shrugs it off as a product of her decision to live her authentic self.

The crux of the issue is that so much of Dolezal’s “authentic” self was tied up in her work as an activist and a professor of Africana studies. While Dolezal mourns not just who she used to be (or, at least, who she was perceived to be), but the impact that she had on her community — all positive, she swears — other talking heads take her to task for continuing to appropriate the successes of black women, and for perhaps causing irreparable harm to the reputation of Spokane’s black community. Dolezal is convinced there’s still space for her in the community, even as actual black people pinpoint the grievous pain she caused them. She still doesn’t get it.

Despite lavishing attention on Dolezal and the minutiae of her existence, “The Rachel Divide” employs a handful of compelling talking heads in an attempt to balance out her perspective, including two local journalists who first revealed her identity, plus a pair of members from Dolezal’s old NAACP chapter, along with Dolezal’s sons Franklin and Izaiah and her sister Esther. Those key players add their own voices to the story, but it’s never enough to keep the documentary as objective as it should be. Dolezal and her own voices seep into every moment, even the ones in which smart participants pinpoint the problems with her continued lies and evasions.

A number of key voices are also entirely missing, including Dolezal’s parents (shown through some archival news footage), Franklin’s dad (represented by an old wedding photo and a honked horn when he appears to pick up his son one evening), and the father of Dolezal’s newest child (who is not mentioned until she gives birth halfway through the film). A lone black friend stops by just once to chat with Dolezal, and even she seems bewildered by her lack of understanding. And while Dolezal claims to not have lost a single hair braiding client during the keruffle, none of them want to show their faces on camera. Mostly, it’s just her and her sons, rattling around the house, with Dolezal bemoaning the injustices done to her as her kids pull into sharp relief the actual experience of young black people in America (they are both black).

Assembled in a linear fashion, “The Rachel Divides” navigates from the earliest days of Dolezal’s public life to her eventual decision to make a living by telling her story in her own words, thanks to a book co-authored by a white man named “Storms.” Media attention stays high, and the film follows Dolezal during various appearances, including one stint on “The Real” and two turns on the “Today Show.” Later, a commenter takes to Facebook Live to vent his frustrations, noting that if he suddenly decided to tell everyone that he was a white man, he wouldn’t get half the the attention Dolezal continues to enjoy. Not that she enjoys it, though, and the weight of the attention paid to her seems to both invigorate her (she just can’t step out of the spotlight) while tearing at her unhinged family (who are the ones most eager for her to stop spouting off). She can’t help it.

“The Rachel Divide” ends with Dolezal attempting one final transformation, following her as she tearfully snips off her dreads (for a moment, you almost believe that she’s gotten rid of them for good; she hasn’t), prepares a new wig, and heads off to the DMV to change her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo.

When Ijeoma Oluo published her gobsmacking interview with Dolezal in 2017, the journalist addressed the name change with a telling personal edge, writing that when she heard about Dolezal’s switch, “My jaw dropped in disbelief. Nkechi is my sister’s name—my visibly black sister born and raised in Nigeria.”

It was another stunt, or at least another way to hide. It still doesn’t work. You can change your hair or your skin or even your name, but you can’t change who you are. People can see you.

Grade: B

“The Rachel Divide” premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. Netflix will debut it on April 27.

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