“The Rachel Divide” charts the challenges of former NAACP president

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Rachel Dolezal made a name for herself when she attempted to become racially fluid. By all definitions, Dolezal is a white woman. But she applied bronzer and a curly wig or extension braids and created an identity for herself as a black woman. Her identity transformation included her becoming president of an NAACP chapter.

A new documentary on Netflix explores Dolezal’s past and her daily struggles, including her school-aged son’s difficulties with her notoriety. The documentary, “The Rachel Divide” is almost two hours of what is known and unknown about Dolezal. It is not easy to watch. What is fascinating, though, is Dolezal’s determination in maintaining her claim that she is of African-American descent.

“The Rachel Divide” and viewers’ expectations

Once viewers get over the almost cutesy play on words, the documentary gets real. And it isn’t pretty. There are those laughter-inducing moments when someone “snaps” on Dolezal for cultural appropriation, insulting, and basically still being part of the problem. She has become a gif, and a cultural joke and punchline. But, if viewers can suspend their judgment, they might find something else: Dolezal is a mother, an artist, a sister, and a daughter. Some might argue that there is something fragile about her. That she seems unable to really understand what she did wrong. She understands that people are angry at her, but that’s it. Much to the ire of many, Dolezal persists.

The filmmakers treat Dolezal’s story with more genuine care than I had anticipated. They are also unflinching in showing her everyday life, and filming what should be her quiet and lonely moments, but they are transformed somehow because they have been filmed.

The scene of her son at the barbershop is harrowing. She is treated harshly for parking in front of the establishment to pick up her son. She isn’t parked illegally, but she is yelled at and made to move by the proprietor. He mocks her need to pick up her son. Essentially the proprietor tells her that her son knows how to find her. How does he know? Tearfully, Dolezal moves up the street. It is as if because she has provoked public anger, that is the only tone she can receive now. Even when it doesn’t make any sense. People look for excuses to yell at her.

Dolezal has a background in fine arts, and the painting she crafts onscreen is masterful. Viewers will watch her graceful work and wonder why she didn’t focus on her art? What was so painful that racial identity became a more important focus? The film answers that question, too.

Dolezal and her adopted sister, who is African-American have alleged abuse by one of Dolezal’s biological male relatives. It should be said, too, that Dolezal has taken two of her adopted siblings and treated them more like a mother than a sister.

Still, it seems that the former professor and NAACP chapter president cannot escape the disdain that many in the public have for her. She is hated both by some people of color and receives threats from white supremacists groups.

A particularly difficult to watch scene is when Dolezal is changing one of her classic hair styles. The camera closes in to allow viewers to watch extension braids fall to the floor. Then it shows Dolezal cutting her hair and untwisting what remained. Her own hair seems to have been cut down to angry stumps. This is in opposition to the pictures of her as a young woman with healthy-looking, long blonde hair. Viewers might wonder, “Is this what she thinks black women look like? Why has she done this to herself?” The scene is disturbing.

“The Rachel Divide” shows one woman’s determination. Her book deal is covered also, but it is hardly a bright spot. In the end, Dolezal just wants a name that lines up with who she thinks she is. What she means to the rest of us, viewers have to decide for themselves.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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