Remember Rachel Dolezal? The 40-year-old Spokane, Wash., civil rights activist became a national punchline three years ago when her status as a woman of color turned out to be, shall we say, based on artificial colors.
Dolezal became an issue in the national race debate when a TV newsman in Spokane, where she led the local NAACP chapter and taught African-American studies at Eastern Washington University, outed her after being tipped off by her quite white parents.
Like countless others, I have wondered why she has gone to the trouble of living a lie for half of her life.
"The Rachel Divide," a new, aptly titled Netflix documentary on which director Laura Brownson began to work shortly after the scandal broke, peels away more layers of that mystery by giving us a closer look at Dolezal's troubled family and upbringing. It may not answer all of the questions as to why she wanted so desperately to be black, but it does offer a more complete picture of the life she was trying to escape, along the social construct of race as the rest of us know it.
The movie shows us how Dolezal's parents home-schooled their two biological children and four adopted children in a very conservative Christian fundamentalist household in rural Montana.
After Dolezal accused her biological brother of abusing her and other siblings, leading to charges of sexual assault against him, the parents outed Rachel's true origins and accused her of orchestrating the charges so she could legally adopt her black adopted brother, whom she has since passed off as her son.
With Dolezal's credibility undermined, the charges against her accused brother were dropped. She also has been accused of telling falsehoods on other occasions, including charges she made of hate crimes that police investigations later disputed.
The movie offers a more sympathetic portrait of Dolezal than I have seen in the past, but that's not saying much. The portrait is marred by Dolezal's dogged determination to have her way and live her racial philosophy, even when it appears to cause visible pain for her own three children. Franklin, 13, her biological son from her first marriage steals the show. Showing a calm maturity and self-awareness beyond his years, he tries without much success to persuade his mother to, like, please ratchet her unorthodox racial consciousness down a few notches.
"Why don't you just let it go away?" he asks her at one point. Her 17-year-old adopted brother-turned-adopted son, Izaiah, is biding his time until he can get away to college and leave mom's notoriety behind.
That's too bad, since I find Dolezal's challenge to America's ancient racial conventions to be her most interesting narrative. This, after all, is the land of opportunity and reinvention, a place of unbridled ambition, except when it comes to our racial caste system.
In a TEDx Talk available online, she treats race as something as changeable as a new pair of shoes. "Is the identity that you were assigned at birth the best description of who you really are and what your purpose is for being in the world?" she asks. "What is life if we can't draw our own pictures and write our own stories?"
Well, there are limits to which stories you can tell without being laughed or hounded out of the room. I agree that race is a social construct, but it also carries too much historical baggage for even the determined Dolezal — who in the film's final scenes changes her name at a local courthouse to her new identity, Nkechi Amare Diallo — to overcome.
"Everyone already hates you," a woman tells her with a sigh, "so you might as well go on being yourself."
That appears still to be Dolezal's/Diallo's philosophy. She recently has taken to publicizing her home-based hair salon business. To me, as an African-American, her widely complimented skills at styling black hair, like her now-ended NAACP leadership, is a sign that she feels fully committed to her black identity. Most of the rest of us have yet to be convinced.