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Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s chapter in Spokane, in the United States.

Netflix’s The Rachel Divide offers complicated look at ‘transracial’ activist Rachel Dolezal

Born white but identifying as black, Dolezal is a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s chapter in the American city of Spokane. Her story will both enlighten and infuriate you


There’s unlikely to be a more polarising movie this year than The Rachel Divide.

The documentary, which premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and streams on Netflix on Friday, attempts to understand Rachel Dolezal, the controversial former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People’s chapter in Spokane, in the American state of Washington, who was born white but identifies as black.

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The film traces her life since 2015, when her parents told a local news station that she has no African heritage. She resigned soon afterwards, amid a backlash for reporting that she was the victim of multiple hate crimes although a subsequent police investigation did not support her claims.

“It feels like I’ve had this trial by the public,” says Dolezal, 40, at the beginning of the movie, which finds her unemployed and pregnant with her second child, Langston (named for African-American poet Langston Hughes).

Unable to leave her house without attracting unwanted attention, she spends most of her days creating art inspired by black and African themes, and writing her memoir In Full Color: Finding My Place in A Black and White World.

Like Dolezal herself, The Rachel Divide raises more questions than answers. She was born to parents she describes as puritanical and religious, and says they physically and emotionally abused her and her adopted siblings, most of whom are black.

She explains how she began to see herself as black as a young girl and felt a unique kinship with her brothers and sisters, one of whom, Izaiah, she later got custody of and raised as her son.

The documentary focuses on Dolezal’s life and work.

“While I may have looked like Pippi Longstocking, that is not how I felt,” Dolezal insists. In 2006, she began her “transition” to being black: getting spray tans, and wearing wigs and weaves to alter her appearance.

When asked about her parentage, she referred to Albert Wilkerson – a close friend who is black, but is not biologically related – as her father. And when questioned how she identifies in an interview, she declared that she is “transracial,” arguing that race is a “social construct”.

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At times, The Rachel Divide asks you to sympathise with Dolezal.

“People only saw me as I am for a few years of my life,” she laments, noting how she only wants to continue her work as a social justice warrior and with the Black Lives Matter movement. Even more so, the film shows the toll the controversy has taken on Izaiah and her biological son, Franklin, who at 13, says that “if any of this had to happen, I wish it happened when I was older”.

Director Laura Brownson also holds Dolezal accountable for her role as a so-called “culture vulture”. Through interviews with journalists and Dolezal’s former colleagues, we learn that many of her stories about her tumultuous past and alleged hate crimes don’t add up.

Dolezal in a scene from the documentary. Photo: AP

While her intentions may be admirable, she doesn’t have the lived-in experience of racial profiling and discrimination that many African Americans have struggled with, as one audience member tells her during a public panel on race. As much as she can try to change herself to look more black, her white privilege does not go away.

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Clocking in at nearly two hours, The Rachel Divide is a messy, overlong film that presents the various contradictions of Dolezal, letting viewers decide whether she is egregiously performative or tragically misunderstood.

But as frustrating as the film can be, it also raises important questions about cultural appropriation and identity that will surely spark some fascinating conversations.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: When claims of a ‘transracial’ life begin to unravel