By Joey Nolfi
April 25, 2018 at 04:11 PM EDT

Regardless of how you feel about the subject of her latest documentary, there’s no denying filmmaker Laura Brownson has guts.

It takes courage to associate oneself with a social pariah like Rachel Dolezal. But for Brownson’s new project The Rachel Divide — a complex journey into the far reaches of the Dolezal controversy partially told by the “transracial” provocateur herself — that’s exactly what she did. For two years, the Lemon helmer embedded deep within Dolezal’s personal life, capturing the personal turmoil of the former head of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter in recovery mode after she was outed by a local reporter as a white woman self-identifying as black. But, the film hardly plays as an apologetic reframing of Dolezal’s tarnished legacy. Presentation is not advocation, and Brownson — never endorsing Dolezal’s behavior — carefully weaves Dolezal’s critics into the fabric, too. Dolezal ends up as a springboard from which Brownson vaults into a broader picture of American society. And the resulting narrative unfolds as one of the best films of the year, touching on issues of race, family, identity, retribution, and media scrutiny in the digital age.

Following the film’s world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, EW caught up with Brownson to chat about the ambitious undertaking, Dolezal’s reaction to the piece, and how she found a way into the guarded life of her notorious muse. Read on for the full interview ahead of The Rachel Divide‘s April 27 premiere on Netflix.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on making such a brilliant film. It’s a careful and considered take on a really controversial subject. Job well done!
That’s nice to hear! I like starting this interview with that! [Laughs]

Yeah, this movie has had some, uh, interesting reactions so far.
It’s not a surprise! Rachel is a polarizing figure, and with a polarizing figure comes a film that is inevitably going to polarize.

How did you land on telling a story about Rachel Dolezal of all people?
As a character, she is fascinating, she is complex, and the deeper you dig, the more perplexing she becomes and the more elusive the truth. The story is bigger than Rachel… I wanted to understand how one woman could ignite and fuel a national controversy. I wanted to figure out a way to unpack these really strong feelings that people were having… Hopefully Rachel can be the entry point into a larger conversation about identity and whether it’s fluid, appropriation, white privilege, and colorism. All of those things are touched on in the film.

Yes, Rachel’s the subject, but it’s not really “about” Rachel. I think it’s important for people to understand that presenting does not mean advocating her behavior.
I absolutely agree with that. So much so that I surrounded myself with a filmmaking team that ran the gamut of reactions to Rachel. I had people on my team who were highly critical and then some who were more sensitive and willing to consider. We spent years debating Rachel as a character and the issues that she raises because it was so extraordinarily important to all of us that we make a film that not be misconstrued as an apology piece or propaganda. I do not have an agenda with this film. It is wholly up to the audience how they react to Rachel as a character and the larger issues she may raise.


How did your anti-Rachel team members guide your perspective while filming?
We all rode a rollercoaster of sorts. You vacillate when you spend time with Rachel and her family. One can’t help but care [about her in the moment]. But then you move on to an interview with someone in the local [NAACP] community who has extraordinarily legitimate and valid reasons for taking offense to Rachel, and then your opinion goes somewhere else.

How long did you spend filming Rachel?
Two years, beginning around August 2015.

And she didn’t receive monetary compensation for this film?
She absolutely did not receive any monetary compensation, nor did she have creative control over the end result. Especially in a film about such a sensitive topic, to pay the subject would’ve been a huge mistake and it would’ve led us down that road of appearing as though we had an agenda, which we didn’t.

Was it hard not to form affection for her and her family during production?
It’s difficult [not to] when spending time with a person and their family — Rachel even had a baby while I was shooting… I care deeply about her boys. They’re the shining stars and the moral compass of the film.

The interviews with her kids — particularly the one where Franklin admits he wishes his mother would stop doing what she’s doing — hit me hard. How long did it take for them to feel comfortable opening up to you?
The trust slowly built. In the beginning, the writing wasn’t really on the wall in terms of how long this was going to last or whether Rachel was going to find her footing. Nobody knew where this was going to land. So, bizarrely, everyone was a willing participating. I think the kids felt relieved that they’d found an outlet for their truth and their story. If your mother becomes a media pariah of sorts, what kind of collateral damage does that do to a family? After two years of filming, Franklin, being a normal teenager, he grew frustrated. On that day where we show Franklin so upset, he wanted everything to go away, including my camera. He wanted his old life back. To Rachel’s testament, she allowed Franklin to speak his truth even though it was critical of her. She was not censoring him.

Has Rachel seen the film?
Rachel has seen the film.

What does she think of it?
[Executive producer] Roger Ross Williams, myself, and another producer, Khaliah Neal, we all flew to Spokane and screened the film for Rachel, Isaiah, Franklin, and Esther. It was extremely difficult for her to see it. Rachel does not like to be criticized and the film is critical. I think that the kids saw how positively they were portrayed, and in that portrayal perhaps Rachel took some pride. That sort of helped soften her initial reaction it being critical and not liking it.


Do you have new insight now on maybe why she’s so hesitant to accept criticism and why she continues to dig in her heels? There’s not a moment in this film where she expresses regret, exemplified perfectly by that haunting final scene.
I might’ve predicted a different sort of arc for Rachel. I predicted and hoped that she found her footing, but in that last scene [where I can be heard interviewing her], the movie really needed me to confront her and see if I could get a different reaction, to see if I could get her to admit some of the things that people were feeling and how those feelings weren’t feeling acknowledged by her to the world, and of course she didn’t. And there is a nugget in that scene that I think is important to understand Rachel: Her childhood was such that it really informed who she eventually became. Her childhood, her parents, the religion, the abuse, all of those things have made her quite resolute in her determination to stick with her perception of her identity.

It’s such a powerful way to close the film. What do you hope people get from it?
In some ways, Rachel is the ultimate Rorschach test. It’s one of those movies where it’s impossible to predict what people will take away. And I don’t have an agenda… it’s best and most interesting to allow people to have the takeaway that they’ll take away. I know that it will spark conversation, and I hope it sparks a conversation where people can talk about Rachel and her unique and nuanced character… but also the larger issues that are raised by and embedded in people’s reactions to Rachel, which include white privilege, appropriation… and the fluidity of identity and whether or not it is fluid. If it’s fluid, can we add Rachel to that equation? Why or why not?