Tribeca: Rachel Dolezal Doc Leaves Audience With More Questions Than Answers

There was a heated discussion after the world premiere of the Netflix film about the controversial former NAACP head who was revealed to be a white woman pretending to be a black woman.

It's perhaps not surprising that a documentary about controversial figure Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP head revealed in 2015 to be a white woman pretending to be a black woman, would generate a lively debate full of provocative questions.

And that's exactly what happened when the Netflix film about Dolezal, titled The Rachel Divide, had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Laura Brownson directed and co-wrote the doc about Dolezal (now named Nkechi Amare Diallo). 

The film explores Dolezal's past and shows what happened after she made headlines and how she's rebuilt her life. In doing so, it reveals her family’s struggle and adds a humanizing layer to this polarizing figure.

Brownson, Oscar-winning executive producer Roger Ross Williams, producer Bridget Stokes and co-writer Jeff Gilbert joined moderator Lisa Cortes, a director and producer in her own right, for a panel discussion, complete with audience questions, after the film. 

The audience came alive during the question-and-answer portion, with people in the crowd asking questions ranging from “Will there be a prequel?” (“If there is a prequel, I’m not gonna do it,” replied Brownson) to deeper questions about Dolezal’s “transracial” identity and rough childhood.

“As far as black people passing for white versus white people passing for black, I think there’s a huge difference because black people pass for white to save their lives," Stokes, who is biracial, explained. "It’s really not something that you have a comparison to in the current zeitgeist that I know of.”

One audience member couldn't wrap her mind around why Dolezal doesn’t want to be a white ally — a question Dolezal is confronted with multiple times throughout the film. Although there isn’t a clear answer, after spending years with the family, Brownson has speculations.

“As for the early childhood trauma, including sexual abuse, I think that her childhood has everything to do with her identity and many people — I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist — I think would call some of this a coping mechanism and I think there’s some validity to that for sure,” she said in response to an audience question. “It’s interesting, there’s so much in this movie that in some ways, those issues never even really get talked about, but they’re very important and relevant and interesting in their own right.” 

The panel came to an end before all of the questions were answered and groups of people could be heard debating Dolezal’s story as they walked out of the SVA Theatre. Stokes noted that that’s the exact response they want. 

“It must have been our third screening where literally everybody saw a different movie, is what it felt like. That felt like a really successful moment for the team,” she recalled, then added. “Maybe what Rachel Dolezal teaches us that is you see whatever your experiences in life have brought you to. That's how you come to this film and that felt like a great success."

The Rachel Divide starts streaming on Netflix on Friday.