Rachel Dolezal. Courtesy Netflix.

The Rachel Dolezal Documentary Is a Hollow, Manipulative Spectacle

'The Rachel Divide' paints a sympathetic picture of Dolezal without responsibly engaging with the realities of race in America. It's very clear that this film is not for Black women such as myself.

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Apr 24 2018, 5:11pm

Rachel Dolezal. Courtesy Netflix.

Rachel Dolezal’s first words in Netflix’s new documentary, The Rachel Divide, set the stage for a predictably frustrating 100 minutes. Clearly alluding to widespread doubt cast about her racial identification, she asks: “Who’s the gatekeeper for blackness? Who can protect it, define it, own it?”

In many ways, Laura Brownson’s documentary (co-written by Brownson and Jeff Gilbert), as a psychological uncovering, picks up where Ijeoma Oluo's revelatory 2017 interview with Dolezal left off. With the self-imposed challenge to “unpack the larger societal reactions to [Dolezal]” and offer some nuance to her “complex” story and controversial character, Brownson shot with Dolezal—as well as family and former NAACP co-organizers—over the course of a year and a half, digging into both her past and present.

But instead of continuing Oluo’s searing indictment of "the heart of whiteness," Brownson ultimately offers whiteness a megaphone with which to make a plea for empathy and understanding.

Despite attempting some greater semblance of the elusive nuance lost in reductive social media commentaries, the film feels consistently more committed to contextualizing Dolezal’s racial identity as emerging from a site of trauma than explicitly acknowledging its roots in privilege, power, and domination. And Brownson largely allows Dolezal’s identity-based claims and assertions to go unchallenged until the very end of the film—presumably to invite candidness—allowing her to craft a stylish, uncontested narrative of herself where one largely has not existed.

As this narrative progresses, it becomes glaringly apparent that this film is not for Black women such as myself. Rather, this is a film for proverbial undecided voters—those still willing to be swayed because they are convinced they entertain racial identity with “nuance,” in contrast to the unwavering absolutists (as Black detractors are framed in the film).

The product is a well-edited, manipulatively sympathetic, and unexpectedly effective account of one of the most infamous and provocative enfant terribles of the last decade.

Early on, we learn that Dolezal’s difficult upbringing drove her to seek refuge in Black American and African culture. Her parents adopted a number of Black children, who, living in Montana, barely knew anyone who looked like them. So, Dolezal took it upon herself to teach them about Black culture, and blackness came to represent escapism—like a never-ending game of dress up—from the crushingly mundane existence of Montanan whiteness and parental abuse borne out of extreme religiosity.

In the film, Dolezal’s adopted sister, Esther, describes Dolezal’s choice of identity as a tool for dissociating herself from her family and part of her “quest for self-discovering.” To Dolezal, being a proud Black woman came to represent the opposite of everything her parents stood for, a replacement for the self worth that they had obliterated in her. As the documentary’s narrative goes, blackness was a saving grace and escape and means of relating to the only pure and loving beings during her formative adolescent years (her siblings); and in her adulthood, blackness became something she had to wholly and fully adopt in order to continue to access that reciprocal love and community validation.

The Rachel Dolezal debate, as it is craftily framed by the filmmakers, uncomfortably forces us to delineate which performances we ultimately understand as legitimate, real, and authentic, and which we do not.

The film does such an effective job honoring Dolezal’s story that many Black viewers may feel sympathy for her; I did. But, meanwhile, it fails to include critiques from Black detractors that effectively address why, despite her unfortunate life story, Dolezal’s racial identification is not valid. Rather, the criticism they feature revolves primarily around the fact that she “had not earned the right to call herself Black” or “had not endured the initiation process of Black womanhood,” as one woman told her after seeing her in public conversation. They are arguments that, by defining blackness through struggle, ultimately lend validity to Dolezal’s “reclaiming” blackness as a positive state of mind—a clear misappropriation of the messaging of Steve Biko and others in the Black consciousness movement. This narrow framing of Black opposition becomes deeply unsettling when you consider that a white filmmaking team is behind its construction. That glimmer of empathy lasts only momentarily.

The other predictable disturbance is the film’s montage of news clips, television show conversations, and interviews (including a particularly awful segment featuring TMZ founder Harvey Levine) featuring transphobic arguments and questioning comparing Dolezal’s racial identity to the gender identities of transgender people. Here, she’s repeatedly compared to Caitlyn Jenner in an attempt to expose the apparent double standard of acknowledging Caitlyn’s womanhood without validating Dolezal’s blackness. The rapid-fire transmisogyny, of course, goes uncontested by the filmmakers and unacknowledged by Dolezal, whose identity as “trans Black” is entirely dependent upon this hard-won moment of transgender visibility and the realness of transgender self-determination.

What does it mean that her self-worth is only actualized through her repurposing of Black struggle or that her trans-blackness requires her appropriation of transgender identity? What does it say about the articulation of a marginalized identity when it cannot exist outside of the subjugation of another (because whiteness is asserted, most importantly, through negation than active construction)? Is Dolezal actually marginal? None of these questions are posed.

Dolezal fails to account for at least one crucial question: What happens when Black people decide that you are not welcome at the table?

Rather, the film forces us to ask uncomfortable questions of our own racial and gender identities (like whether the idea of “earning” blackness through experiences of discrimination is valid), the uncertainties and ambiguities around which will lend themselves to the case that Dolezal continues to make about her claim to blackness. Where every identity is undeniably socially constructed and continuously performed—where every structure of domination translates into an identity politic—the Rachel Dolezal debate, as it is craftily framed by the filmmakers, uncomfortably forces us to delineate which performances we ultimately understand as legitimate, real, and authentic, and which we do not.

While there is nothing inherently objectionable about challenging how we understand social performances of identity, the downfall of the film—and what ultimately makes it dangerous and not at all “riveting"—is that it fails to properly equip viewers to engage these questions responsibly. The omission of Black voices beyond a careful curation of reactive sound bytes is negligent, particularly because the burden and material consequences of the questions posed in the film are overwhelmingly carried by non-white people (and Black people in particular).

With little actual acknowledgement of the sociological origins and functions of race or how ethnic identity and geography can erect barriers around what blackness means and how it can or should be legitimately understood and expressed, the film’s purportedly productive discourse amounts to little more than an extended opportunity for Dolezal to appropriate and weaponize the language of identity politics against itself in a last ditch effort at redemption.

At the end of the film, Brownson confronts Dolezal with a definitive answer to the question she poses at the very beginning: Black people are gatekeepers to blackness, and the community has largely decided that she is not and will not be accepted as a Black woman. To this, Dolezal replies that there’s a “seat at the table” for everyone and that she does not think “the energy of attack and exclusion is moving us towards equality.” But who is us?

Dolezal fails to account for at least one crucial question: What happens when Black people decide that you are not welcome at the table? In her deluded imagination where there is little else of importance beyond her quest for self-actualization, she continues to make violent demands of blackness while purporting to care about Black people. She not only demands that we redefine how we understand the fabricated reality of race as a biological construct (a necessary undertaking) and apparent fluidity of racial identity, she compels us to fundamentally redefine what blackness is as it suits her needs and desire for acceptance.

Brownson opts for the easy route of capitalizing on pain for the benefit of curious white audiences...

“I’m never going to be that 12-year-old-looking 18-year-old white girl in Montana, again, wearing Amish dresses,” Dolezal says in one of the film’s interviews. “I’m not going to subject myself to the punishment of my parents all over again.” Time after time, she reveals a kind of solipsistic existence in which she answers only to the self-soothing calls of the imagination that she used as a means of escape in her childhood. And, couched in a kind of helplessness and victimization that this film allows (and that only a white woman could enjoy), she persistently refuses to respond to criticisms against her or account for how her proximity to structural power allowed her to adopt blackness in a way that could not possibly be replicated by non-white people claiming whiteness.

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The inevitably (and predictably) painful part of The Rachel Divide is that it does not seem to care to be any kind of intervention on behalf of Black people or transgender people (or Black transgender people!) whose lives and identities are consumed and regurgitated into single flattened dimensions in order for Dolezal to create her sense of self. Rather, Brownson opts for the easy route of capitalizing on pain for the benefit of curious white audiences (as well as hate-watching and admittedly curious Black ones). So much so that the film presses you to question the ethics of documentary filmmaking and whether this one should have been made at all—ultimately representing how so much white artistic production is an exploitation of the pain of some “other” for the sake of white creative curiosity.

To quote David Bowie’s “Life on Mars,” the song played in the film’s closing credits: “The film is a saddening bore” of Dolezal’s both pitiable and contemptible “sunken dream.” The Black heartache it vampirically feeds off is not worth enduring.