Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Movie Review: The Rachel Divide

The Rachel Divide *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Laura Brownson.
Written by: Laura Brownson & Jeff Seymann Gilbert
I don’t think that the new Netflix documentary – The Rachel Divide – is going to change anyone’s mind on its Rachel Dolezal, and in reality, it really shouldn’t. The former President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, who was outed for being biologically white, and faced pretty much universal condemnation from all sides, Dolezal became a lightning rod for controversy back in 2015. Ever since, Dolezal has naively thought that if only she could explain herself – and her story – that everyone would understand her, and get what she did. She still seems to have no concept as to why people reacted as strongly as they did. The film is fascinating in many ways – yes, it humanizes a person who has mainly been a punchline for the last three years, but it sees much more clearly what Dolezal does not about the debate that she kicked off. In some ways, though, I think it may even be too early for this film – no one, it seems, really wants to hear from Dolezal (her 2017 book only sold a few hundred copies) – and the pain from some people close to Dolezal still seems too fresh – they are still processing it all it.
Nowhere is this clearer than with Dolezal’s 13 year old son Franklin – who clearly does love his mother, but doesn’t necessarily agree with everything she has done. He says at one point that people don’t know everything about the story – but when the filmmakers ask what people don’t know about this story he simply says “Nothing I’d want them to know”. It would be fascinating to see a documentary with him, a decade from now, as a young black man in America, with Rachel Dolezal as your mother. Franklin and his brother Izaiah – are the most fascinating people in this movie. They love Rachel, but part of them seems to be conflicted over her actions. Izaiah is at least older – he was originally adopted by Dolezal’s parents, and she eventually got custody of him – so he’s able to get out of the bubble. Franklin never does.
The humanizing aspect of the film is valuable – it recounts Dolezal’s upbringing by very religious parents, who after having two children of their own, adopted four black children as well. Her parents were the ones that outed her as white – but their motives were far from altruistic. One of those adopted daughter – Esther – has accused their biological son of sexual abuse – and a criminal trial was coming up. The whole thing was he-said, she-said, until Rachel was willing to testify that her brother did the same thing to her. Of course, everything that followed Rachel being espoused ruined her credibility – and the criminal case fell apart as a result.
That is the personal side of the story, and the one that Rachel thinks explains her actions. She says she always identified more with her adopted brothers and sisters, and saw herself the same way, than her biological family. Yet, what Dolezal never seems willing or able to grasp, is that the reason why she seems to identify that way is because she identifies with oppression – her view of the black experience seems to be entirely focused on suffering and pain.
I am sure the movie is going to frustrate many – perhaps even most – viewers. There are questions that never really do get answered – most notably, if the racist letters and threats Dolezal said she received were legitimate or faked by her – or perhaps, a little bit of both. Spokane doesn’t seem to be the post-racial utopia many seem to want it paint it as in the fake of all this. Also, I think a lot of viewers want to see Dolezal admit she was wrong – and she isn’t going to do that. She still doesn’t see it that way. That frustration many will feel is an essential part of this movie. Your feelings on Dolezal may grow slightly more complex as you watch the film – but they aren’t going to change. But the issues raised are still worthy of discussion – even if that discussion should be led by people who are not Rachel Dolezal.

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