The Netflix Documentary That No One Asked Might Deserve A Chance

Photo: Photo: Colin Mulvany/The Spokesman-Review/AP Photo.
With thousands of film and series titles to choose from, Netflix is more than just the sum of its most popular shows (like Orange is the New Black) and weird-but-cool movies (like What Happened to Monday). A couple of clicks down the wrong category rabbit hole, and it can get pretty weird. When I saw the trailer for the upcoming documentary, The Rachel Divide, I felt pretty sure that it was about to get even weirder. This new film, directed by Laura Brownson, is the result of two years spent with Rachel Dolezal, the woman who sparked outrage — and a lot of jokes on Twitter — when it was revealed that she had spent most of her adult life intentionally passing as a Black woman. Dolezal was the president of the Spokane, Washington branch of the NAACP for nearly a year, taught Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, and identified as Black when her white parents exposed her to the world in 2015 for being, well… white. She is viewed by many — especially Black people — as an offensive example of cultural appropriation and racial insensitivity. However, the trailer for The Rachel Divide seems to focus on a subject whose opinions on race actually matter: her son Franklin. Technically biracial — Franklin’s father is a Black man — the two-minute clip shows the teenager expressing his apprehension about his mother subjecting their family to any further scrutiny.
Things have been weird for Dolezal — who changed her legal name to Nkechi Amare Diallo after finding herself unable to get a job following the public controversy — since news of her actual ethnicity and ancestry broke. Instead of issuing an apology, she leaned even further into her self-identity by claiming that she was “trans-black,” a flawed identity that would explain why she sued Howard University in 2002 for discrimination against her as a white woman. Wanting to tell more of her story, she wrote a book in 2017 in which she compared some of her experiences to slavery. Now she has also agreed to participate in The Rachel Divide in what feels like another futile attempt at generating compassion and empathy from critics.
As for me, A Black woman who was born Black, I can’t think of anything I want to watch less than Dolezal once again defending her decision to identify as anything other than white. And I can think of several better uses of Netflix’s platform, funds, and resources. They could have used whatever money and time was spent on this project to diversify their selection of Black titles, create new opportunities for filmmakers and artists of color, or even pay Mo’Nique what she’s worth. And it doesn’t look like Dolezal’s son is fully on board either. In the trailer, he and his mother sit on a couch, and he reminds her that her decision to participate in the documentary doesn’t only affect her life. In another clip, he says that he doesn’t think she should “piss people off further.” It’s clear that Franklin doesn’t agree with all the choices his mother has made.
I also get why Dolezal participated in the film. She is currently working as a hairdresser in order to make ends meet. According to an interview with the Guardian, she was nearing homelessness last year. Apparently it’s been hard for her to find other jobs in her field as an organizer or educator. It’s an unfortunate situation for anyone to be in. But here’s the thing about white privilege: Should Dolezal take down her twists, blow her hair, and forgo the tanning and bronzer for a week or two, she would likely be able to get a job in some other field just off of the strength of being a white woman. In the same way that she wanted to play up her appreciation of Blackness to get into Howard University and then sue them for discriminating against her as a white woman, she is now trying to continue her journey as proponent of optional Blackness while resenting the struggle that comes with it. Not aligning with whiteness in this country comes with consequences, like employment disenfranchisement. This is a struggle that Dolezal chose.
Her Black son, however, did not. I am interested in what he has to say about his mother’s choices around his own identity. His perspective matters and is the silver lining in this project that literally no one asked for.