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Filmmaker Laura Brownson has a theory: Your reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman from Spokane, Wash., who identifies as African-American, is a Rorschach test for issues of race. But if that’s true, Brownson’s documentary strongly suggests everyone is seeing the same thing in this sad ink blot—except Dolezal herself.
The Rachel Divide, available on Netflix, follows Dolezal and her two mortified sons for more than a year. No employer will give her a chance, Dolezal explains, so she’s braiding hair for income. We can only presume she’s also earning money for media appearances and her book deal.
The film, which contains strong foul language, does speculate about how a young Dolezal might have rejected her own identity after watching her white biological family cover up the alleged abuse of her black adopted siblings. But those issues have been well-covered in the media. Brownson instead gives special attention to the reactions of Dolezal’s friends and family (and social media followers) to her newfound fame.
One son comments that Dolezal could make everyone happy by giving up her charade. Instead, she clutches harder after every nasty online comment. Meanwhile, the film’s audience is an omnipresent camera in the home, embodying the watching eye of the internet, while these two poor teens are just trying to survive adolescence. The intrusion is awkward for everyone.
One son groans from under the covers as his mom offers him fruit and eggs for breakfast, in front of the camera. “I’ll have a side of life invasion,” he says. The other chooses to take a gap year in Spain rather than deal with the media attention created by a simple college visit to his dream school, Howard University.
If there are other Dolezals out there, living as “trans-black,” the film doesn’t hint that Dolezal has found them. She’s an island, ostracized by both white and black communities. Yet she continues to feed the two-headed media and social media beast.