The Rachel Divide review – Netflix's Dolezal documentary is a troubling watch

A controversial figure is the subject of a thought-provoking yet problematic film that prioritizes a white woman’s feelings over the damage she has caused

Rarely has a film been so uneagerly anticipated. When word got out that Netflix was releasing a documentary about Rachel Dolezal, the controversial white woman who identifies as black, many people were furious. Understandably so. Getting a movie made about your life because you appropriated blackness and then lied about it seems like peak white privilege. What, large swaths of social media wanted to know, was Netflix thinking?

A cynic might say they were thinking that controversy equals free publicity. Netflix’s own defence of The Rachel Divide was far more high-minded, of course. Last month Netflix responded to the backlash about the documentary on Twitter, stressing that the film isn’t just about Dolezal but explores her “life as a microcosm for a larger conversation about race and identity”.

I’m not sure this is accurate. The Rachel Divide is a fascinating and thought-provoking film. But it is also a reminder that the “larger conversation about race and identity” always seems to find a way to prioritize white feelings and center white stories. While the film is not an all-out defence of Dolezal, it certainly pushes you to sympathize with her.

The documentary starts, for example, by showing you the extent to which Dolezal has become a pariah in Spokane, Washington. There was a time when Dolezal was a well-respected figure in the city; she served as the president of Spokane’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) from 2014 until June 2015. Things fell apart, however, when it was discovered she’d been lying about her race. She was also widely suspected of lying about being the victim of racial hate mail.

Now Dolezal, whose lies many people believe set back the work of the NAACP, is very much persona non grata, subject to abuse and suspicion wherever she goes. What’s bitterly ironic about this, as Sandra Williams, a Spokane journalist points out in the film, is that Dolezal is finally getting an authentic taste of the African American experience: she’s being “treated the way black people are treated when we raise issues”. She doesn’t seem to like it much.

We then dive into Dolezal’s childhood, which seems to be the root of her identity issues. After having two children of their own, Rachel and her older brother Joshua, Dolezal’s parents, we are told, felt spiritually guided to adopt. Because it was quicker and easier to adopt black children, they ended up with four African American kids who they raised, as Dolezal’s adopted sister Esther puts it, as “white people with skin conditions”. It was Dolezal who took on the job of trying to teach the children about their race. During this process she seems to have convinced herself that she too was black.

Dolezal’s parents, Larry and Ruthanne, it would appear from the documentary, mistreated all their children terribly. Esther, for example, demonstrates scars she still has from being beaten with a glue gun and baboon whips. She also says she was sexually abused by Joshua Dolezal – for a while he faced charges for this abuse, but they were dropped in 2015. One reason the case was dismissed appears to be the discrediting of Dolezal, who has claimed that her brother also sexually abused her. The problem with Dolezal is that she has been caught out in so many lies that no one can really believe a word she says anymore; and this has had a profound impact on lives other than her own.

It has certainly had a devastating effect on her children’s lives, particularly her 13-year-old son Franklin. While just a teenager he comes across as more thoughtful and self-aware than his mother. “If all this had to happen, I wish it had happened when I was older,” Franklin, says at one point; it is heartbreaking. He also pleads with his mother to stop trying to tell the world that she is black. “I really do not want to focus on this for the rest of my life. Why don’t you just let it go away? ... This is going to affect more than just your life.”

Did Netflix have any qualms, I wonder, about bringing more attention to Dolezal and her family? Did they think how it might affect her children? For every one person who watches the movie and feels compassion, a handful are simply going to see Dolezal trending and spout more abuse at the family. Again, it is difficult to shake the feeling that the documentary is an exercise in prioritizing a white woman’s feelings over the damage she has caused, not least to her own black children. That the director, Laura Brownson, is a white woman is not, I think, an insignificant fact. Ultimately, I’m not sure The Rachel Divide really interrogates the reasons why Dolezal is so divisive, so much as it whitewashes them.

  • The Rachel Divide is showing at the Tribeca film festival and will be available on Netflix from 27 April


Arwa Mahdawi

The GuardianTramp

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