Analysis: Four takeaways from ‘The Rachel Divide,’ Netflix’s new documentary about Rachel Dolezal
“All my mom did is say she was black and people lost their minds.”
This is how Franklin, the then-13-year-old son of Rachel Dolezal describes the socio-political brouhaha his mother created almost three years ago when it was revealed that she — a woman who identifies as black and led the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Wash. — was born to biological parents who are white. The interview occurs in Laura Brownson’s documentary, “The Rachel Divide,” which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and begins streaming today on Netflix.
1:45 PM, May. 03, 2018This story originally stated that the name Nkechi Amare Diallo was Nigerian. It is not. The name comes from a language predominantly spoken in Nigeria called Igbo.
But as many will remember from the year or so after Dolezal’s rise to notoriety in 2015, the conversation is a lot more complex and polarizing.
“The Rachel Divide” attempts to capture the Dolezal hubbub, starting from just a month and a half after the story went public until she legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo in 2016.
After Netflix announced earlier this year that the film would be premiering on its platform, many on social media, still exhausted from Dolezal’s arguable over-exposure, including multiple media tours and a memoir — “In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World” published last year — verbalized their discontent. Above all, many hoped Dolezal had not been paid for participating in the film.
Netflix clarified that on Twitter. “Like all subjects for our documentaries, Rachel Dolezal did not receive any payment for this project,” Netflix tweeted. “We worked with filmmakers Laura Brownson and Roger Ross Williams, who wanted to explore Dolezal’s life as a microcosm for a larger conversation about race and identity.”
Still, it appears that many potential viewers are torn about whether they should watch the documentary or not. In response, we watched it to help those in need of making a decision either way. Below are four takeaways from the film:
Dolezal has set back the social justice community of Spokane
At the time her biological background was publicly revealed, local police were investigating concerns that hate mail received by the NAACP chapter of which she was president was at an all-time high. But after local journalists were tipped off that something was amiss, they discovered that the black man she claimed on social media was her father was, in fact, not and that she had been born to white parents. Jeff Humphrey, the Spokane broadcast journalist who broke the story, decided to confront Dolezal because she made it seem like white supremacy and racism were “making a comeback.”
Although the results of Humphrey’s reporting are widely known, less widely known is the damage Dolezal’s unmasking caused, erasing much of the positive work she and the social justice community around her had done in Spokane. Through interviews with black women who organized alongside Dolezal, viewers discover that they had to hold “integrity rallies” to distance themselves and their efforts from Dolezal’s misrepresentations about her background. Additionally, police all but dropped the hate mail investigation, despite many believing that the claims might have been valid.
A good black hairstylist is hard to find in Spokane
Dolezal early on lost her job as a part-time instructor — she never formally had the title of “professor” — in Eastern Washington University’s Africana Studies Program. This left her without a way to pay bills. Until she landed her book deal, she continued to do the hair of black women in the community — kinky twists, box braids and more — to make money. She said she didn’t lose a single client.
The real victims are Dolezal’s black family
Throughout the film, Dolezal positions herself as an anachronistic victim of intellectual and physical circumstance whose conception of racial identity is far beyond the popular one. She asserts that just as some transgender people feel different than the sex they were assigned at birth — an identity once thought to be a mental illness — she too feels different from the race she was assigned at birth. By identifying as black, she lives as her authentic self. (This is why the term “transracial” began appearing in headlines.)
But those most affected by their circumstances are her black family members: Izaiah, her adopted brother, whom she gained legal guardianship of and calls her oldest son; Esther, her adopted sister, who accused Dolezal’s biological brother, Joshua, of sexual abuse; and Franklin, her teenage son, who just wants to go to school and baseball practice without having to hear people in the community talking about his mom.
As a result of the media storm around Dolezal, Izaiah, who hopes to attend her alma mater for law school — the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C. — can’t make it through a campus tour without inquiring minds snapping cellphone photos and videos of his mom or a news report that Dolezal is filming a movie about race on the college’s campus. (That film about race is this documentary, to be clear.) Both he and Franklin can’t get a haircut in their neighborhood without the owner of the shop coming out and demanding that Dolezal move her car from the front of his establishment.
“I didn’t ask for this,” Franklin says in the film as his mom wakes him up after a recent interview she’d done.
“None of us did,” Dolezal responds.
“You did. I didn’t. You did.”
As for Esther,Dolezal served as the main witness in her sister’s case against their brother, alleging she was also a victim of abuse. But the documentary shows that when this news story broke, her credibility — and by extension Esther’s — was tainted.
Dolezal still doesn’t get “it”
Near the end of “The Rachel Divide,” Dolezal gives birth to another biracial son that she names Langston Attickus, a moniker she decides fits the criteria of having historical significance but not being too difficult as to prevent him from getting a job. While in the hospital bed filling out the baby’s birth papers, she’s tasked with marking the race of the child, whose father is African American. She settles on checking both the white and black boxes.
This scene might make audiences feel like she finally understands what many have been saying about the nonuniversality of her relationship to her race — meaning, black people can’t identify as white and move through the world as such. Our skin doesn’t allow us such privilege and ability, like Dolezal’s does.
Moments later, however, the documentary ends with Dolezal in line at the DMV. She’s changing her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, which in Igbo, a language spoken primarily in Nigeria, means “gift of God” and “bold.” As Aurora’s “Life on Mars” begins to play, Dolezal says she hopes it will give her a new start and an opportunity to find employment.
The song is ironic, considering an earlier scene where Dolezal is in conversation with her friend Siobhan, who is a black woman.
“How do I fix this?,” Dolezal questions.
“Move to Mars,” Siobhan shrugs.
Perhaps this is the closest she’ll get.