There's a scene at the end of the Netflix documentary about controversial figure Rachel Dolezal when she enters a DMV and comes out a few minutes later with a new name. "A new start," she says. The whole process seems painless and courteous. If only she could change other parts of her identity so easily.
"The Rachel Divide" is a fascinating, comprehensive and well-crafted documentary about a one-time civil rights activist in Washington state whose life unraveled after she was outed as a white woman pretending to be black.
Director Laura Brownson has masterfully unpacked and knitted together this complicated figure, who still seems to elude easy answers. Is she a calculating faker, a perfect symbol of white privilege? Or is she simply naive?
This film says she can be both, just as Dolezal checks both white and black boxes on the hospital form to describe herself when her third son is born. Netflix has been criticized for giving a platform to Dolezal, who, as a media sideshow, has damaged the airing of actual racial grievances. But it is a film that raises serious questions about race in America and it gets some serious answers.
Anyone tuning in hoping that Dolezal has something more profound to say about her personal journey other than she is "transracial" are out of luck. She still seems as stumped by her own curious path as that infamous time in 2015 when she was first unmasked by a local TV reporter with the question: "Are you African-American?"
Stubbornly, years later she won't back down. She won't say she's white and just end the controversy. She continues to identify as black and even doubles down, changing her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. "I can't just go away," she warns. But can a white woman ever really understand systemic discrimination, racial profiling and self-hatred when she's not gone through it?
Perhaps Dolezal is a fame-seeking culture vulture who loves the narrative of oppression. Or perhaps, as the film offers, her childhood was so awful at the hands of white religious zealot parents — filled with abuse and neglect — that she ran as far as she could and never looked back. If that's the case, then her cultural appropriation was more a desperate search for refuge, however ill-advised.
The filmmakers recorded Dolezal for over a year a half, charting the aftermath of her public fall and her attempt to rehabilitate herself, as well as the quiet times with her sons and sister. Some of the scenes are wrenching, as her sons — teenager Franklin and former-adopted-brother-turned-son Izaiah (we told you it was complicated) — appear like collateral damage, mere bystanders forced to endure what their mom has unleashed. They are in many ways the real heroes, caught between love of mother, gotcha journalism and huge social movements outside the door.
Brownson weaves lots of pieces of the identity puzzle, including tracing Dolezal's tortured family history, valid and devastating criticisms of what her actions mean for the black community, and even a conspiracy theory for why she was ambushed on camera at the time she was. Dolezal is also nicely integrated into a larger discussion of modern America's grappling with identity fluidity.
Brownson got footage of Dolezal behind the scenes at the "Today" show and a remarkable sequence in which she shows us what it takes to get her hair extensions ready for the day. There are also sad moments, as when she scrolls through Instagram and finds ugly invective hurled at her. (Why she continues to post anything with so many trolls about remains a mystery.) The filmmakers also use old footage of Dolezal leading Black Lives Matter marches or defending the African-American community in Spokane — and confront the destructive irony of what that means.
The soundtrack has a quirky collection of songs that explore identity or seem to comment directly on Dolezal's dilemma, including Ben Harper's "ID" and the classics "I've Got You Under My Skin" by Cole Porter and Nina Simone's "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
There are many touches of real art, including about halfway through, when Dolezal asks a friend how she can turn her life around. "Move to Mars," she is told. Flash forward to the last scene: Dolezal is pushing her newborn in a stroller to a wispy cover of David Bowie's "Life on Mars," the perfect outsider soundtrack to a woman disliked by white and blacks alike, charting her own surreal course along the racial fault lines of current America.
"The Rachel Divide," a Netflix release, is rated TV-MA. Running time: 100 minutes. Three stars out of four.