Rachel Dolezal is the white woman outed for pretending to be black, serving as president of the Spokane NAACP, an activist leading protests against shootings in the run up to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That’s the narrative we were fed by media outrage, “Daily Show” and comic sketch show mockery (Maya Rudolph, take a bow).
“The Rachel Divide” shows Dolezal’s life after the media circus, with her two smart, compassionate and thoughtful black sons and the price they all had to pay for her transgressions. Her career — in African American studies academia — is over. Her community shuns her, and we see her drop her kids off at the airport or the barber shop because she can’t show her face in public, then have an angry black shop owner order her not to park in front.
The film then takes us back to the origins of the controversy, her NAACP leadership, accusations of racist threats in the mail, nooses, hate crimes, that appear to be bogus.
A local TV reporter outed her.
My first thought as all that blew up was I’ve seen this sort of hustle before. I covered Native American organizations in Alaska whose ethnic favoritism in hiring allowed people with laughably minor (and dubious) claims to tribal connections into lucrative Federal jobs that they had neither the competence nor the relationship to “their” community to be effective.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Maybe. Surely America’s drift towards “identity politics” had a little something to do with Dolezal being a sort of early adaptor in a culture headed toward a transgender, transracial future.
Filmmaker Laura Brownson follows Dolezal around in her life today, a town “that won’t let me be me,” and an African American community that still wants to keep her at arm’s length. She drives an old car with a cracked windshield, hunting for jobs with no offers coming.
A Spokane journalist admits that perhaps Dolezal made up the racist threats that spawned the expose and backlash. “Perhaps.” But he goes on to add that pretending that isn’t a widely held attitude on the fringe of White Nationalism’s Northwestern stronghold is laughable.
The Howard U. alumna, expert in African American studies and art, hasn’t changed her appearance, the frizzy or dreadlocked hair that was fairly blonde in her teens. She had avoided the media. The film captures her re-introduction to media via “The Real,” a very smart woman who gets schooled by more overtly ethnic TV hostesses of color, and admits she’s a white woman who identifies as black.
And being pregnant, she takes a ribbing over simply being a woman who prefers black men. She cringes.
The best scenes are between Dolezal and her sons Franklin and Izaiah, kids who are more philosophical about what she and by extension they have to endure.
Brownson delivers montages of the loud, colorful and heated debate about Dolezal on TV, which seem hilarious and quaint with the passage of time. I mean, it was three years ago, after all. Ancient history.
Then we see how she grew up. And we get it. This was a family at war with itself, not unlike the country that got so worked up by this. It is an ongoing war, both with her family (lots of adopted black children) and within the country.
“I know who I am. And my kids know who I am…Everybody else?”
Her art — colorful, intensely personal paintings and sculptures — is soulful, accomplished and vividly African and African American.
If you’ve made up your mind about her, it’s hard to see this intriguing documentary changing that made up mind. The movie turned my head, here and there.
But the questions about her honesty linger, along with the notoriety. How’d she get the skin tone, one wonders? The hair goes without explanation, but this still seems like an adaptation too far.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Rachel Dolezal, Franklin Dolezal, Izaiah Dolezal, Jeff Humphrey
Running time: 1:44