'The Rachel Divide': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

A fascinatingly complex, humanizing portrait that faces controversy head-on.

Three years after she became an infamous household name, activist Rachel Dolezal is the subject of an intimate documentary.

It's somewhat off the mark to characterize Rachel Dolezal as a divisive figure. Pretty much everyone lined up against her, when, in 2015, the president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP was exposed as a white woman passing as black. There were a few high-profile defenders (The Hollywood Reporter contributor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar among them), but mainly she was ridiculed and scorned, and a passionate and effective local civil rights leader became a national pariah and a late-night punchline.

To say that sales of her 2017 memoir were paltry would be the understatement of the century. All copies in the Los Angeles Public Library system were available when I reserved one recently, and when I checked it out, as the black librarian stared at the cover photo of the tanned, curly-haired Dolezal, I felt compelled to explain that I was reading it for work.

As one of Dolezal's critics interviewed for The Rachel Divide puts it, "There's so many layers to this." With remarkable access to her subject, filmmaker Laura Brownson digs into those layers — the tensions stirred up by Dolezal's story, the instructive debates around questions of personal identity, the reality of race as a social construct created by Europeans and, not least, the abusive upbringing (detailed in her book) that's inseparable, in Dolezal's mind, from her understanding of oppression.

The result is a riveting portrait, one that doesn't quite dispel what's maddening about Dolezal — namely, her reluctance to acknowledge that she's biologically Caucasian. What many have disdained as a masquerade and some have dismissed as the epitome of white privilege is, Dolezal insists, an expression of her authentic self. She identifies as black, and that has informed her work as an educator, a hairdresser and an unpaid social activist. Her black sons, as clear-eyed toward her notoriety as they are protective of her, are central to her story, and to the film.

It's potently evident that the family she's built around them is the antidote to the toxic one she grew up in. As with many driven people, her identity is a reaction against her upbringing. That her adopted son, Izaiah, was first her adopted brother speaks volumes about a complex and troubled family history. So does the lawsuit brought by her adoptive black sister, Esther, against Dolezal's biological brother for sexual assault.

Over a two-year period, Brownson and her agile lensers, Jerry Henry and Paul Mailman, capture intimate moments at home and on the interview circuit. They follow Dolezal as she makes the rounds of New York and Los Angeles studios, including a disastrous visit to The Real and a New York Times live Facebook event that sparked an outpouring of angry comments. Naively viewing these media appearances as opportunities to discuss her views on race, Dolezal often appears as dumbstruck as she was during the moment that turned her into a pop-culture meme, when a Spokane TV reporter posed his gotcha question, "Are you African-American?"

Brownson's interviews with local journalists, including that reporter, reveal a wishful-thinking notion of a post-racism Spokane. A couple of female NAACP members, Kitara Johnson and Latoya Brackett, speak powerfully to the damage Dolezal's pretense did to their cause, however much she had accomplished for the community in the guise of a black woman. Dolezal, of course, who ultimately chooses "transblack" to describe her identity, contends that it was never a guise. But the questions surrounding her reports of hate crimes targeting the NAACP — were they invented or inflated? — still hang naggingly in the air, even for her teenage son Franklin.

Though his love and admiration for his mother are unshakable, Franklin, who's exceptionally mature for his 13 years when the story breaks, grows impatient with her continued stoking of the media fires, both mainstream and social. It's hard not to see something disingenuous about her hope for privacy while she announces her pregnancy on Facebook and continues to post and tweet, and Brownson presses her on the point. The response the director receives is something that countless social media users would say.

If the film finds something relatable and down-to-earth about Dolezal, it also exposes a blind spot that has shaped her. Driven by a primal need to distance herself from her white parents, she seems unable to acknowledge that there's a difference between her emotional reality — and the degree of choice involved — and the immutable constant of racism in the lives of black Americans.

Whether you see her as a pioneer or write her off as a prevaricator, her empathy and commitment to fighting injustice are undeniable, and that worldview is reflected in the hopes that Izaiah and Franklin hold for their baby brother. But at an especially charged moment in the country's racial history, a well-meaning political stance can't entirely counter a basic deception. One of the most fascinating aspects of Dolezal that The Rachel Divide explores is her work as an artist. She's a gifted creator of collages, her subjects relating to Africa and African-Americans. The doc shows some of the finished pieces, and it also watches her at the easel. Beginning a new piece, she offers a tip for ensuring that colors have optimum depth: "You always want to cover up the white of a canvas before painting."

Production company: Dandelion Films
Distributor: Netflix
Director: Laura Brownson
Screenwriters: Laura Brownson, Jeff Gilbert
Producers: Laura Brownson, Khaliah Neal, Bridget Stokes
Executive producers: Roger Ross Williams, Ben Cotner, Zana Lawrence, Lisa Nishimura, Will Staeger, Michael Antinoro, Rebecca Sanhueza
Directors of photography: Jerry Henry, Paul Mailman
Editor: Jeff Gilbert
Composer: Mark Degli Antoni
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

104 minutes