I spent 100 minutes with Rachel Dolezal Tuesday night, and I still don’t know who she is. Frankly, I’m still not convinced she does, either, though she continues to declare otherwise.
But surprisingly, I’m not asking for my 100 minutes back.
I was admittedly none too thrilled by the prospect of providing Dolezal yet another platform upon which to appropriate and exploit blackness at her leisure—let alone my time and attention. But I’m a journalist at a black-run and black-focused publication who enthusiastically volunteered to cover this year’s Tribeca Film Festival; during which I’ve indulged in almost every piece of art featuring even a single black face. How could I avoid a documentary about one of the most incendiary figures in contemporary racial politics—a woman accused of blackface via bronzer—without rendering myself as lacking in integrity as I believed her to be? (Trust me, I tried.)
Begrudgingly, I took my seat in the theater, with little to no interest in getting to know Dolezal any better than I already had.
But The Rachel Divide is interesting, if only because its subject is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a case study in abject narcissism in what often appears to be a racialized form of Munchausen syndrome (occasionally by proxy), and a grating and self-destructive need for validation from people who have no interest in ever granting it to her, likely beginning with her parents. (Glad my Psych 101, 2 and 3 are finally paying off.) Fittingly, the film opens with Dolezal’s face superimposed on a Rorschach blot.
Directed by award-winning documentarian Laura Brownson and executive-produced by Oscar-winning documentary director Roger Ross Williams (the first African-American director to win an Academy Award), The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to solve or explain the problem of Rachel Dolezal but to simply observe and reveal her as she is in the pivotal years after her racial “outing” in 2015. Unfortunately, what she is is an unmitigated mess.
As Brownson told Vulture: “Rachel was interested in putting a different narrative out into the world. But I was very clear that my film was not the place for that. I let it be known that the film would not, in any way, be an apology piece for Rachel.”
No matter, because in The Rachel Divide, Dolezal is still “unapologetically black”—or so she says after giving birth to her youngest son, Langston, during the course of the film. In addition to being what many perceive to be a fraud, Dolezal is clearly also a loving mother and foster sister, as well as a genuinely talented artist. She also happens to be a person who wholeheartedly believes in her own fiction—or, as she calls it, “a bit of creative nonfiction.” How can she not? She’s crafted her entire identity around it.
As Spokane, Wash., journalist Shawn Vestal says (when considering the possibility that Dolezal staged her own hate crimes while conceding that hate crimes are a very real occurrence in their community), “more than one thing is true here.”
But even in Dolezal’s most humanizing moments—and The Rachel Divide offers her plenty—she also frequently comes across as desperately delusional and a perpetual self-saboteur. As Brownson noted, even while mired in victimhood, Dolezal had a difficult time truly grasping the depth of the distrust and vitriol directed at her.
“Rachel believed that every time she put herself out there, somehow the response would be different,” Brownson told us post-screening.
Of course, the response only got worse as Dolezal persisted, and that couldn’t have been more clearly illustrated than through her relationships with older sons Izaiah and Franklin and sister Esther, all of whom are desperately in need of coming first with Dolezal at various points during the two-year span covered by The Rachel Divide.
But despite Dolezal’s obvious love and expressed concern for how the ongoing saga is affecting her family (and it does, to increasingly terrible effect), there is no room for anyone else to be centered—only to be collateral damage in her ongoing war with the world.
It’s worth noting that in true documentary tradition, neither Dolezal nor her family was paid or had any creative control over the piece. This reality comes crashing down on Dolezal in at least one point in the process as she seems to realize, as if for the first time, how all the access she’s granted may eventually be weaponized against her and her family, which she’s also done in the process. So why did she do it?
As Williams noted in the post-screening Q&A, for some people, “no matter how big a train wreck their lives are, their ego is bigger.”
Despite ongoing scrutiny, Dolezal compulsively posts to social media, claiming that it’s “the only way I exist in the world”; and also courts a book deal and invites a film crew into her home, all in the name of making things clear. But all that becomes clear is that a childhood purportedly filled with abuse and rejection has created a woman consumed with attention. If the lens ceases to be on her, she believes she will cease to exist.
I’ve recently written about how trauma can be transferable. If there are any sympathetic “characters” in The Rachel Divide, they are Dolezal’s children and sister, whom Brownson rightfully calls the “moral compass” and “true stars” of the film.
As for Dolezal, we’re inevitably left wondering what she could’ve been were it not for her unwavering fixation on being what she’s not. Could she have been a wildly successful artist? An incredibly effective ally to the communities she claims to love? A mother who could provide not only love to her sons (because she clearly loves them) but also assurance, instead of increasing isolation?
If there is any lasting sympathy to be found, it is in the fact that despite her relentless and reckless appropriation, Dolezal’s motivations are ultimately less an embrace of blackness than a rejection of her whiteness, which she clearly associates with trauma. It may be the only true common ground she has with those of us born black—and yet she’s still left somewhere in limbo.
The Rachel Divide will be available on Netflix on Friday, April 27.