rachel dolezal

Paint it Black: Rachel Dolezal on Screen

Rachel Dolezal: The Movie. It’s coming. I know it. You know it. Someone working for Lifetime knows it. Are you thinking of some movie titles? I am.

“Say it Loud…”, or “Race Draft” (shoutout to Dave Chappelle). “Inappropriate?”

As you know, until the more tragic news out of Charleston, South Carolina pummeled our senses, Dolezal has been the deer in the news headlights for the past few weeks.

Initially, the case was bizarre, yet graspable: a white woman serving as head of an NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington had been claiming to be black for the last decade or so. She resigned on June 15 amid the growing scandal.

Her biological parents dimed her out to the “Washington Post” and other newspapers, citing her ethnicity as “Czech, German and a few others.” No African, though.

We were thrown by all this, but we held onto the reins. Essentially, here was a woman showcasing the most committed bit of performance art since Joaquin Phoenix faked us out back in 2008 when he told us he was retiring from acting to become a rapper. But even he couldn’t keep up the act for longer than a couple years. According to her parents, Dolezal’s been faking it since 2004.

This information is now over a week old. Dolezal’s story has since tumbled even further down the rabbit hole. While journalists and bloggers displayed their itchy trigger fingers in wanting to be the first to assign Dolezal a headline, the powers that be threw at us the sort of plot twists that would have a movie audience chuckling in disbelief.

Wait, this woman honestly and truly believes she’s black? She’s been parading around a black man and pretending that he’s her father? One of her two black sons to a past marriage is actually her step-brother? The hate crimes inflicted against her were fabricated?

That wasn’t all: In 2002, she unsuccessfully sued Howard University (from which she received her Master’s degree) on the grounds of racial discrimination. Remember, in 2002 she was still white.

Of course, like any good story worth its Lifetime spotlight, the childhood stories started to come out. She said she’d been born in a teepee, that her parents beat her and punished their kids based on skin complexion. Dolezal’s parents and her adopted brother Ezra adamantly deny all this. Her older brother Joshua is awaiting trial on sexual molestation charges, though Ezra and the parents say the alleged incidents are another fabrication.

One more anecdote for good measure: In an interview with Today’s Matt Lauer, Dolezal remembers how she used to draw self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon.

“Missapropriate”? No, “Fade to Black”… “Paint it Black.” “Is it Because I’m Black?”

The culture has decided to turn this movie pitch into another spark for a Conversation on Race. Think pieces on passing for white, being “trans-racial” (huh?) and what constitutes blackness have infested our media. These discussions dignify a freak show just this side of “American Horror Story.” This is an aberration, an extreme, one that shoves America’s racial moment into a trap door out from which nothing logical escapes.

The only logical place for Dolezal is Hollywood. In real life, we must understand that a true discourse on race will take place in the middle ground. In reel life, however, the drama suffices, one that is a more intriguing study on identity and deceit rather than blackness.

Your pick for a lead would be white, right? Maybe Laura Linney or Kate Hudson. Jennifer Aniston, perhaps. All promising choices, but too culturally expected.

Cinema has given us many an imitation of black life by white performers. Hedy Lamarr was a Congo goddess in 1942’s “White Cargo.” Jeanne Crain won an Oscar nomination playing a light-skinned nursing student passing for white in 1949’s “Pinky.” Ava Gardner was beautiful and tragic as the mulatto in the 1951 musical “Showboat.” Notably, Lena Horne coveted both the latter two roles; the aggressive racism in America ensured that such juicy roles would never touch her lips.

Perhaps most famously, Susan Kohner was the light-skinned daughter of Juanita Moore in Douglas Sirk’s acclaimed melodrama “Imitation of Life” (1959).

For this next imitation, it would be an act of utmost cultural justice if we strayed away from the precedent of whites getting to play any and everything. This moment should belong to the light-skinned black actresses.

Think specifically of Maya Rudolph and Rashida Jones, those fine performers whose race is so rarely acknowledged in their films. How fitting would it be for an actress whose blackness is usually ignored to play a person whose whiteness was no longer adequate for her.

Rudolph has already set Twitter abuzz with her wicked impersonation of Dolezal on Late Night with Seth Meyers, but Jones’ dialed down acting, her characters’ anxious tics and tart personalities, may prove a more snug fit for a woman whose eyes betray a mental breakdown in infancy, but whose voice expresses a cool defiance:

“I identify as black.”

I got it! “Blackish.”

Oh, darn.

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  1. Sasha Cade 3 years ago

    Great article, Blackish would’ve been the best if only it weren’t already the title of a show. 🙂

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