Documentary filmmaker Laura Brownson has chosen to make a film about Rachel Dolezal, the former president of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, who was outed as white and formerly blonde-haired by a news reporter in 2015. The vague title that Brownson has chosen is “The Rachel Divide,” which would suggest that there might be something to debate in Dolezal’s story. This most certainly is not the case.
Dolezal wears her hair in elaborate dreadlocks most of the time in this film (which premieres April 27 on Netflix) and sometimes sports a curly wig. Her hairdos are so over-the-top that they look like they were meant to attract attention, and attention is clearly something that Dolezal craves, whatever she might say to the contrary. She refuses to give up her hairdos, which have become her trademark. What we are dealing with here seems to be a pathology where Dolezal is seeking negative attention and abuse. If she doesn’t get that negative attention or abuse, Dolezal is not above fabricating it.
“Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness?” Dolezal asks at one point, in her thin, nagging, disembodied voice. We see her raising her two teenaged male sons, who have to deal with the trouble she brings wherever they go. And when the expected sob story of her past finally emerges, it proves to be just as thin as her speaking voice.
Dolezal was raised by white parents who were very religious and who favored her older brother. Dolezal’s parents adopted four other children, all of whom were African-American, and they lived in a very white area of Montana. Dolezal’s adopted sister Esther is the only family member we see much of in the film. (Her parents are only seen via interviews from television news sources.) Esther shows us scars from beatings she claims to have gotten from her adoptive parents, and she says that she was sexually abused by Dolezal’s older brother. Esther brought a court case against this brother that Dolezal herself was participating in, but this fell apart after Dolezal was exposed in 2015.
If Brownson was so set upon making a film about Dolezal, surely she should have pressed more into this family history and pressed Dolezal herself about it. We do see Dolezal attacked and pressed throughout this movie, but by journalists, college students, and former colleagues at the NAACP, and their verbal attacks are increasingly scathing and un-answerable.
Dolezal desperately tries to align herself with absurd terms like “trans racial” in order to try to find some way of making her way of life acceptable, but she always comes up short, and it is impossible to have any sympathy for her because she is so transparently a manipulator and a guilt-tripper. Dolezal gives herself away particularly here in the moment when she says that the negative response she got in the wake of her public outing made her think of her abusive parents.
It seems clear that Dolezal is seeking condemnation, and that she likely wanted to be exposed because only that would give her the twisted form of attention she is seeking. But all of this is a subject only for a psychologist, and it’s not even a particularly interesting subject. Dolezal’s story has nothing to do with race or racial perceptions beyond the racial performance element in her self-presentation that calls up all kinds of ugly memories of white entertainers performing in blackface.
The mark of a successful documentary, and a worthy subject for a documentary, is how much it can make us think about and consider various issues and various complications. There is nothing complicated about Rachel Dolezal’s story. It turns out to be small and far too specific to have any bearing on anything beyond the sickness of one highly unpleasant and repellent individual.
So why did Brownson choose to extend Dolezal’s 15 minutes of fame with this movie rather than celebrate or tell the story of an actual living African-American woman? The answer is that Dolezal is basically outrage clickbait in human form, and so Brownson is using Dolezal’s negative attention seeking to get attention for herself as a filmmaker. Nothing beyond that has been accomplished here.
Brownson winds things up with a montage of photos from Dolezal’s youth where we can see that as a teenager she dressed up several times in Asian garb, and so she seems to have had an Asian period as well. Whatever other racial identities Dolezal decides to try out in the future will hopefully be performed in obscurity.