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'Rachel Divide' Director Says Dolezal 'Has Remained Resolute'

May 2, 2018
Originally published on May 2, 2018 9:06 pm

Back in 2015, Rachel Dolezal became a walking Rorschach test for America's racial dysfunction. She was the president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP chapter, and she was outed as white after spending years claiming she was black.

The public backlash, and fascination, was intense.

Now, the Netflix documentary The Rachel Divide shows what happened to Dolezal after the initial furor died down. Filmmaker Laura Brownson says, "There [was] collateral damage and fallout that [was] very big and very hard to recover from."

The Rachel Divide features interviews with Dolezal, as well as her friends, family and critics. It also explores Dolezal's childhood growing up with adopted black siblings. Dolezal and her sister have said the family was abusive (a claim their parents deny), and Dolezal was set to testify about that abuse when she was outed as white.


Interview Highlights

On what Dolezal's life is like now

Rachel still doesn't have a job. Rachel still struggles to pay the rent every month. She works braiding hair, that's really the only kind of constant work that she's been able to find. ... It's the phenomenon of becoming a media pariah, and the impact that that has on a family.

On whether the controversy changed Dolezal's perception of herself

I think I imagined that Rachel would have a more traditional character arc; that she would move from a place of catastrophe to something else, and that that would in part be due to her growth. I did not get that character arc. She has remained resolute in her determination and in her perception of her identity.

On her decision to include Dolezal's family history and abuse accusations in the film

There is no doubt in my mind [of] the trauma that Rachel, and also her siblings, endured during their childhood, which, you know, it was a very religious home. Corporal punishment was very much part of what they all experienced. And Rachel's attachment to her [adopted black] siblings, I really think, began her kind of life's journey in terms of disassociation from whiteness and an attachment to blackness. ...

There are some things that are very difficult to get to the bottom of. And, you know, the truth is elusive with Rachel, and so we did allow for the parents to deny it and one of her brothers, Ezra, of course, to also suggest that none of these things happened.

On pressing Dolezal to explain why she won't admit to being white

There came a time in our filming where it was quite apparent to me that I needed to give Rachel one last opportunity to say something different. ... In that interview, she admitted that she can't go back to whiteness; if she were to go back to whiteness, it would be letting her parents win. And I think it really is a real key to Rachel and her character.

On what drew her to Dolezal's story

As a white woman, watching someone who was born biologically white — to watch her and understand, or try to understand, how she would give up all the privilege of whiteness and all of the things that, you know, come along with being white in our society. It was a fascinating thing for me to dig into from my own point of view. ...

White people's privilege, that the idea that a person can even consider changing their race ... is an act, in many people's opinion, of ultimate privilege.

On Dolezal's reaction to seeing the film

It was a difficult thing for her to see. The film is quite critical and she doesn't like to be criticized. And ultimately though, because her kids really come off as the shining stars and the moral compasses of the film, that softened Rachel a bit and there's some pride in knowing that her kids at least come off looking well.

Justine Kenin and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Three years ago, there was a name that was nearly impossible to get away from - Rachel Dolezal. She was a white woman who passed for black.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RACHEL DOLEZAL: I'm Rachel Dolezal, the president of the NAACP in Spokane, Wash. Malcolm X is my hero.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Are you black?

DOLEZAL: Yes.

CORNISH: But after she was outed as white, the public backlash and fascination was intense. So what happened to Dolezal afterwards?

LAURA BROWNSON: Rachel still doesn't have a job. Rachel still struggles to pay the rent every month. She works braiding hair. That's really the only kind of constant work that she's been able to find.

CORNISH: That's Laura Brownson. She's the filmmaker behind a new documentary on Netflix called "The Rachel Divide." She told me she spent two years filming Dolezal and her family. They've become isolated inside their small house in Spokane. Normal activities like picking up the kids from school or taking them to the barbershop seem to only invite public hostility.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RACHEL DIVIDE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Would you please move?

DOLEZAL: OK, so where do you want me to park is what I'm asking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You can park anywhere you want.

DOLEZAL: I just want to make sure that Franklin can find me when he comes out.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, your son ain't lost. Just move from out in front of my shop now.

BROWNSON: It's the phenomenon of becoming a media pariah and the impact that that has on a family. And there's a collateral damage and fallout that is very big and very hard to recover from. Her son Franklin, who at the time of filming is about 13 years old, he seems to have the most difficult time with it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RACHEL DIVIDE")

FRANKLIN: All my mom did was say that she was black and people start losing their minds. You know, all they say is that she's a liar.

CORNISH: He makes this point, essentially, that a lot of people made over and over again that everything might be solved for her if she stopped claiming to be black. And other critics say this to her face - right? - that essentially, they wouldn't care very much about any of her life if she was honest and had not lied. What was her response to that?

BROWNSON: I think I imagined that Rachel would have a more traditional character arc, that she would move from a place of catastrophe to something else and that that would in part be due to her growth. I did not get that character arc. She has remained resolute in her determination and in her perception of her identity.

CORNISH: This gets to the point of her family background, which you dig into, her growing up in Montana, where her parents, who are white - they are the ones who went public about her background. And you talk about her growing up with her adopted siblings, who are black and African-American. And then there's, like, a cascade of allegations that I want to dig into a little bit. One of which is that Rachel and her sister Esther, her adopted sister, say that her family was abusive to her. Why do you think that this was important to include in this story?

BROWNSON: You know, there's no doubt in my mind that the trauma that Rachel and also her siblings endured during their childhood, which, you know, it was a very religious home. Corporal punishment was very much part of what they all experienced. And Rachel's attachment to her siblings I really think began her kind of life's journey in terms of disassociation from whiteness and an attachment to blackness.

CORNISH: And I want to be clear here, her parents have denied these claims. And her sister, who is featured in the movie, also says she was sexually abused by Rachel's older biological brother and that Rachel was set to testify against him and this family on the eve of her essentially being revealed. This part of it hasn't been talked about too much.

BROWNSON: No, this part hasn't been talked about too much.

CORNISH: In part because the charges were dismissed, I should say. But it's not something that kind of came out in the conversation with her.

BROWNSON: That's true. That was a detail that for whatever reason really didn't get traction in sort of the media's treatment of Rachel's story. There are some things that are very difficult to get to the bottom of. And, you know, the truth is elusive with Rachel. And so we did allow for the parents to deny it and one of her brothers, Ezra, of course, who also suggests that none of these things happened.

CORNISH: When you finally get down to it, it seems like you reached a point, I don't know if you did this multiple times, but in the film at one point, you basically have to just ask her a series of questions of, like, what's going on here? And why can't you admit to being white?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE RACHEL DIVIDE")

DOLEZAL: I'm never going to be that 12-year-old-looking 18-year-old white girl in Montana again, wearing Amish dresses. I can't live in that particular mode again. Like, I'm not going to subject myself to the punishment of my parents all over again.

CORNISH: So this is where all of the conversation about racial identity kind of falls away - right? - and you have a person admitting to something a little more personal.

BROWNSON: You know, there came a time in our filming where it was quite apparent to me that I needed to give Rachel one last opportunity to say something different.

CORNISH: 'Cause she wasn't going to do it. I mean, it's like over and over again, watching the film, like, she is steadfast in this.

BROWNSON: She is steadfast in this. But in that interview, she admitted that she can't go back to whiteness. If she were to go back to whiteness, it would be letting her parents win. And I think it really is a real key to Rachel and her and her character.

CORNISH: For you, what did you see when you first looked at Rachel and how has that changed?

BROWNSON: I think that I was able to be a little bit of a blank slate.

CORNISH: Really, you and no one else in America?

BROWNSON: Well, that's the filmmaker in me. You know, I think that I had this notion of this is a human being, who I would really like to unpack, but she's infuriating a huge portion of our population. And I want to unpack that as well.

CORNISH: Was there anything that you came to think about being a white woman, right? Like, the ideas that she was rejecting or kind of her arguments about these things?

BROWNSON: Certainly as a white woman, watching someone who was born biologically white, to watch her and understand or try to understand how she would give up all the privilege of whiteness and all of the things that, you know, come along with being white in our society, it was a fascinating thing for me to dig into from my own point of view.

CORNISH: 'Cause essentially, when people make arguments about what it is she's doing, they end up in a way talking about you, right? Like, when people are talking about, well, there's this privilege that you're embracing or not or I just thought that might have been a weird kind of moment for you.

BROWNSON: For sure. I mean, I think that the argument that this is the ultimate act of white privilege certainly makes me think more deeply about all of that, all of our privilege.

CORNISH: All of our meaning...

BROWNSON: White people's privilege. The idea that a person can even consider changing their race and come up with the idea of changing their race is an act, in many people's opinion, of ultimate privilege.

CORNISH: How did Rachel Dolezal receive the film? Has she seen it, and what has she told you?

BROWNSON: It was a difficult thing for her to see. The film is quite critical, and she doesn't like to be criticized and ultimately, though, because her kids really come off as the shining stars and the moral compasses of the film, that softened Rachel a bit. And there's some pride in knowing that her kids, at least, come off looking well.

CORNISH: Laura Brownson, her new documentary is called "The Rachel Divide," streaming on Netflix. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

BROWNSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.