To the extent you may have already heard of The Rachel Divide, it’s probably along one of two extremes of opinion. Tonight, the documentary will premiere as one of the Tribeca Film Festival’s buzziest, most anticipated entries: a “fine, nuanced, intimate doc” that comes “highly recommended” by New York’s David Edelstein. But the Netflix original film is also causing controversy, if only by dint of its much scrutinized, frequently ridiculed, always polarizing subject: Rachel Dolezal.
The former NAACP Spokane branch president triggered a firestorm of public debate and became one of the millennium’s most incendiary individuals when she was “outed” in 2015 as a white woman, despite having passed as African-American throughout her adult life. Now, the critique goes, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she continues to self-identify as black, to view race as a “construct” or a “performance” rather than an external reality, and to cherry-pick from African-American identity without enduring its hardships.
The movie doesn’t start streaming on Netflix until April 27, but that hasn’t stopped a statistically tiny but fiercely voluble contingent from criticizing The Rachel Divide sight unseen — the film began drawing ire as soon as it was announced.
Even actress Patricia Arquette chimed in, urging a boycott of the movie after its trailer premiered online, featuring Dolezal’s 13-year-old African-American son Franklin admitting he resented some of his mother’s life choices. “This documentary might backfire, just like everything else has backfired,” he says dejectedly.
A corollary presumption to all the outcry is that The Rachel Divide must function as some kind of apology for the bronzer-dependent, 40-year-old civil-rights activist’s cultural appropriation: an implicit endorsement of the racial privilege that allows her to identify as “trans-racial.” But while the documentary certainly provides a penetrating character study of Dolezal (who legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016), illuminating the murky familial politics that led up to her outing and showcasing the pressures her racial identity has created for her two sons, it’s hardly a valentine to one of America’s foremost media pariahs. For long stretches, the movie cedes the floor to Dolezal’s fiercest detractors, several of whom question her sanity and label her a “con artist.”
“I made this movie because the story is bigger than Rachel,” says director Laura Brownson, who co-directed the award-winning 2011 documentary Lemon. “The strong reaction that people have to Rachel is what drew me to the story in the first place. I wanted to understand how one person can ignite and continue to fuel a national controversy. Specifically, embedded in those reactions are important issues worth discussing: white privilege, colorism, the underrepresentation of black women in our society, identity — can it be fluid? And can race be added to that list? And if not, why not? Rachel didn’t start this conversation but she’s a vehicle to continue it.”
Through a mutual connection at the NAACP, Brownson approached Dolezal about making a documentary not long after she had become a national laughingstock, regularly lampooned on nightly talk shows, and near the apex of her infamy — around the time Dolezal’s parents made the rounds on television to confirm the Black Lives Matter activist/African studies instructor’s pure European heritage. The idea was to “unpack” the complex societal reactions Rachel was provoking — confusion, anger, frustration, accusations of being a race traitor — while exploring the forces that forged her identity.
But first, the filmmaker made her terms clear. “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,” Brownson says. “I let it be known that the film would not in any way be an apology piece for Rachel. No one — not Rachel or her family — was paid.” (Netflix grew so sensitive to the perception that Dolezal had “sold” the streaming platform her story, the company tweeted at pundit and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid, “To clarify one thing: Like all subjects for our documentaries, Rachel Dolezal did not receive any payment for this project.”)
Flying from Los Angeles to film in and around Dolezal’s Spokane, Washington, home several times a month for two years, the filmmaker was granted access to a part of Dolezal’s life that had until then remained cordoned off from public view: her children. The Rachel Divide provides a sometimes discomfiting glimpse at how Dolezal’s embattled sense of self effectively turned her kids’ worlds upside down. When college-age Izaiah Dolezal (who is African-American, and whom Rachel adopted) is shown touring Howard University, he is mercilessly trolled on Instagram; later in the film he is shown leaving the country to escape Rachel’s sphere of influence. Franklin Dolezal, who was going through puberty’s most awkward teenage phase during filming, is seen retreating into himself, clearly bewildered by the negative attention his mother gets everywhere she goes. “All my mom did is say she was black and people started losing their minds,” Franklin says in the movie.
“To Rachel’s credit, she did not censor those kids,” says Brownson. “She allowed them to speak their minds unfiltered, unedited, and at times critical of her. Their inclusion in the movie was not self-aggrandizing at all. She knew they were being impacted and she wanted that to be shown for their sake.”
The director was quick to recognize that the cultural limitations of her own worldview presented certain liabilities and sought out collaborators who would actively challenge her assumptions. “I was extraordinarily aware that as a white woman filmmaker I have a particular lens,” she says. “And I worked really hard to check myself, my biases, and my privilege. I did that by surrounding myself with a team who had different points of view.”
Executive producer Roger Ross Williams, for one, is an accomplished documentarian whose short-form doc Music by Prudence won an Academy Award in 2010 (his feature-length do Life, Animated was nominated for an Oscar in 2016). “There were a lot of black people involved in this film,” Williams says. “The two producers are black women. The DP is an African-American man. Me. But I came to this project not just because I’m black. I’ve directed a bunch of films. I could bring experience to the project and help Laura navigate both this story and as an emerging director.”
During production, the filmmakers found themselves vacillating between sympathy for Dolezal and her family and sharing in the outrage at a woman many in the black community see as not only self-deluding, but deeply offensive. “At points, one of my producers was so frustrated with Rachel, she wanted to contemplate a film that didn’t even have Rachel. It would be just the reactions to Rachel,” Brownson says. “There was an intense desire on our parts to make sure the voices of anger were loud and clear. Her fear was that in including Rachel, those voices might be dismissed.”
Early on in The Rachel Divide, Dolezal remarks, “I feel like I’ve had this trial by the public and the jury is still out on who Rachel is, and if she’s a good or bad person. And if she’s white or black. All she has to do is say she’s white and everything’s fine.” The former activist — who has found herself unemployable in her former field and makes ends meet as a self-described “weavologist,” operating a hair salon for a predominantly African-American clientele out of her home — has yet to publicly comment on the film. But according to Brownson, her subject hasn’t exactly given the project a resounding thumbs up.
“The film was hard for Rachel to watch because it’s highly critical of her — and nobody likes to be criticized,” the director says. “She did struggle at the end of it. But I feel the film humanizes Rachel and does do justice to her story and the very complicated reasons why she is who she is and what along her life journey led her to become the person she has become. The only way that any of this can be considered is for all of the criticism to be put out there. Without the criticism, the conversation is over.”
The filmmakers are, of course, apprehensive that all the internet opprobrium and calls for boycott will drown out The Rachel Divide’s merits as a genuinely thought-provoking film (with emphasis on the provoking part). At a time when gender roles are merging and descriptors like poly/ambi/omni/other have come to redefine American lives, Dolezal’s continuing ability to infuriate shines a spotlight on the country’s queasy relationship with race and identity.
Brownson, for her part, remains philosophical about the knee-jerk criticism the film has received in the lead-up to its release. “It’s terrifying to work in such a sensitive space and still find the confidence to make the brave and meaningful artistic choices that you have to make in order to make a good film,” she says. “Knowing that I’m making a movie that is going to push buttons has personally been really challenging. But I don’t have an agenda. I believe in the importance of documentary film to tackle tough subjects — and make us think about challenging things. I just hope people will take the time to watch and see that the skepticism is there.”
“Rachel is an imperfect way for people to talk about other issues,” Williams adds. “Rachel is the most imperfect package there is. But people have discussions after watching this film. You will not walk out of this film and not talk about it. And it will be a heated discussion. Because everybody has an opinion about Rachel.”