By Dave B.
Let me ask you a few questions: Who are you? Who does the world think you are? Have you ever suffered because of who you are or who you’re perceived to be? Have you ever benefited from it? These are some of the questions that the fascinating Netflix documentary, The Rachel Divide, asks about Rachel Dolezal.
Let’s just get this out of the way. There’s no doubt that Dolezal is a liar. Even before seeing The Rachel Divide, I personally thought that a lot of the criticisms directed at her, especially about cultural appropriation and how she benefits from white privilege through media exposure, have validity. But The Rachel Divide provided me with a fuller picture of who she is as a person, and I now believe, despite the possible and probable untruths that she’s told, that she really does identify as black. And for me, that raises a whole hell of a lot of problematic issues, which I’ll touch upon in a moment.
Looking at the quality of the movie, The Rachel Divide is extremely well-balanced. Her perspective, the viewpoints of her children, and the opinions of her detractors are all given adequate time, consideration, and value. I don’t think anyone who actually paid attention to the movie could legitimately call it unfair to any party, despite the fact that the movie being made at all demonstrates one of the primary criticisms of Dolezal: that if she weren’t white, she likely wouldn’t have the platform that she has had.
Dolezal is a very interesting person. She’s undoubtedly an incredibly talented artist. Her upbringing (and that of her adopted siblings) was odd at best, and physically and emotionally abusive at worst. At times, she displays a startling amount of narcissism and lack of awareness of how her actions and words impact others, but she combines those traits with an empathy that feels genuine. It’s easy to see why those who are closest to her, even those who were deceived by her, are willing to stick by her. If she had never garnered an instant of media attention, I think she would still be an interesting person to meet and that helps make the movie feel relatively short, despite its 100 minute runtime. All in all, the documentary is extremely well-crafted and would be worth a watch even if it didn’t spark some interesting lines of thought.
Central to the movie is a tension that exists in society, but isn’t often openly discussed in mainstream venues: At what point and with what criteria does one’s self-identity become (or cease to be) socially accepted? The Rachel Divide offers two possible answers. On the one hand, someone’s identity is whatever they say it is. On the other, a person’s identity is socially accepted when one meets the criteria of the community that they identify with. Neither of these answers is particularly satisfying, largely because they aren’t mutually exclusive. Part of what makes The Rachel Divide special is that it implicitly acknowledges that tension and doesn’t try to resolve it. It leaves it up to viewers to decide for themselves where their personal lines of inclusion lie.
This won’t be a popular opinion, but I loved The Rachel Divide. I didn’t think that I would, especially because I wasn’t particularly interested in the underlying story before seeing it. It’s a testament to how good the movie was that it made me care about a story that I normally wouldn’t. I believe this documentary will stimulate many interesting thoughts in viewers and I highly recommend it.
I have no clue what I'm doing, but I'll keep doing whatever it is to the best of my ability.