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Film Review – Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018; Directed by Ron Howard)

By all rights, Solo: A Star Wars Story should not have stood a chance. The second of Disney’s stand-alone “anthology” Star Wars films, Solo had a notoriously troubled production, the juicy details of which were splashed across Hollywood trade media. Original directing duo Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from the project when their organized-anarchy comedic filmmaking methods turned off producers and execs and especially Lawrence Kasdan, writer of The Empire Strikes Back, co-scribe of the Solo screenplay (with his son Jonathan), and keeper of the flame of all things Starwarsian. Lord & Miller’s replacement was workmanlike Hollywood stalwart (and close friend of Star Wars creator George Lucas) Ron Howard, whose reliably pedestrian directorial style is quite nearly the polar opposite of their trademarked headlong, freewheeling, two-laughs-a-minute kinetic abandon.

Additionally, lead actor Alden Ehrenreich, taking up the mantle of a younger version of the rogue-ish smuggler/space pilot with a heart of gold made legendary in the Original Trilogy and The Force Awakens by Harrison Ford, was said to have required an acting coach to figure out the role to the satisfaction of the higher-ups (the final result is a bit more than passable but generally too careful, which might have been predicted). One might as well add to all of this a certain sense of unrest and fatigue in the ever-fickle Star Wars fandom following the surprisingly divisive The Last Jedi, which came out only five months ago, and a sneaking sense in corners of the online fan community that Han Solo’s character arc was as complete as it needed to be and required no further filling in, in this film or any other.

Given this leaden weight, it’s quite nearly a wonder that the the final form of Solo, with Howard holding sole directorial credit due to guild regulations, gets off the ground at all. But it does, you know. If it never reaches the galvanizing action heights and dramatic stakes of the last act of Rogue One (which was, again, largely overseen by a substitute director), let alone the raw emotional inculcation and thematic power of any of the main trilogy films, Solo is a perfectly serviceable genre-mashup potboiler, a space-western/heist flick without particular visual distinction that nonetheless constitutes, broadly speaking, a good time in the cinema.

This is the sort of highly-qualified barely-praise that Ron Howard has built a long and surprisingly successful career garnering, and how he works diligently to garner it safely and effectively here. Some credit should be given to Opie for varying his style just enough to allow for some quick-cutting excitement (he did make the auto-racing movie Rush recently, so he must have learned something about the depiction of speed onscreen), but the comic timing is completely off the mark, with joke after joke falling badly flat. Despite a clutch of good elements, the knowledge that a Solo made by Lord & Miller – the Van Goghs of contemporary film comedy, lathering on gags and punchlines like thick globs of colour– would have been hilarious renders the Solo released with Ron Howard’s name on it an inescapable disappointment.

Beyond these auteur-theory-centric textural complaints, Solo very much shares most of the common qualities – good and bad – of Disney-era Star Wars releases. Namely, a winking, self-aware willingness to prostrate itself before perceived fan expectations while slyly upending those expectations defines these proceedings, along with a persistent low-boil of progressive (indeed, bordering on openly socialist) politics. Certainly, Solo‘s convoluted story following young Han from the industrial canyons of his native Corellia through muddy Imperial battlefields and into an escalating series of heists featuring shady criminal syndicates and numerous switchbacks, double-crosses, and conflicting loyalties exists largely to exhaustively depict the incremental clustering of the various qualities, accessories, and associates that defined the galaxy’s favourite cynical badass rogue when he first appeared in the Mos Eisley cantina in an odd little space movie 40 years ago. His contentious, retroactively altered introductory shootout in A New Hope gets a final, definitive bookend at the conclusion of this narrative, and we are shown how Han Solo acquires his blaster, his iconic ship the Millennium Falcon, his Wookkie sidekick Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), his dandified high-stakes gambler acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), his signature boastful accomplishment (making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, some of the most famous nonsense technobabble in the movies), even his on-the-nose surname.

While it’s busy ticking off these boxes, Solo complicates its anti-hero’s arc some as well. He’s given a first girlfriend, a Bonnie to his Clyde, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow survivor in a harsh environment who becomes inculcated in the criminal syndicate of interstellar gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). He’s given an underworld mentor, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), whose deep-crusted cynicism makes Han look like a rosy-cheeked optimist in comparison and who teaches him some valuable lessons in outlaw endurance.

More than that, however, Han’s experiences in Solo seed the slumbering sense of justice that keeps bringing him back to the Rebel fold in the Original Trilogy despite his insistence on believing in nothing but his own wily instincts of self-preservation. His youthful subsistence on Corellia, a sort of decaying outer-space Rust Belt manufacturing centre where his proletarian father was laid off from building freighters, takes place among exploited refugees and endemic human trafficking. He insubordinately dismisses the pointless brutality of the Imperial war effort when serving in the Empire’s armed forces, pointing out to a superior officer that they, and not the fighters defending the planet the Imperial forces have invaded, are the “hostiles”. His allies later liberate a mining colony’s slave labour, droid and organic being alike, and his choice of sides in the final act conflict presages the Rebel Alliance and indeed gifts the resources to make its inception possible.

These political themes are among Solo‘s better features. Others include Glover’s resplendent, cape-clad Lando (can the character support his own spinoff movie? Glover makes you wish fervently to find out), the ever-compelling Harrelson, and Jon Favreau and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in under-utilized CG-character roles. Thandie Newton is also sadly underserved as Beckett’s lover and heist-squad compatriot, although the spectacular sequence in which she figures, a theft from a train on a precipitous snowy-mountain track, is Solo‘s unquestionable highlight action setpiece. A scene like this, so centrally conceived and plotted out by and for visual effects experts, demonstrates how, in the case of Star Wars films just as most other CG-enabled Hollywood blockbusters, a certain inertia of technical accomplishment and imagination has a way of sweeping up movies and dragging them along for a ride, regardless of the artistic peculiarities of the form’s old-school creative centres such as screenwriters, directors, and actors.

If the efforts of director Ron Howard are as competent but largely unremarkable as usual (considering the knockout work of the cinematographers of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, there is little that is visually memorable from the very talented Bradford Young here), the screenwriting Kasdans do attempt to assert themselves, especially in the latter stages of Solo. One big particular late shock appearance of an iconic franchise villain (which is only a shock to those who aren’t familiar with the Clone Wars and Rebels cartoon shows, which admittedly is basically everyone) seems calculated to generate fan chatter and sequel buzz in the way that much more audacious twists provided by J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson in the main trilogy installments did. The moment is far too much of an inside-baseball reference to carry much real impact, however, and fits in with the almost-oppressive sequel-teasing closing throes of Solo.

Early reception of Solo, which is being greeted as a critical and commercial disappointment compared to the thunderous successes of the last three Disney Star Wars releases, is already being understood as prefiguring franchise fatigue on the part of a movie audience that has had to contend with an embarrassment of cinematic riches (four Star Wars films in three and a half years, more than half of them rather good) from a franchise previously known for its lenghty tantric absences from the marketplace. Solo is hardly an unmitigated failure and can be more than a bit fun when you give it a chance, but its general unremarkable (and occasionally even frustrating) quality is suggestive of corporate production imperatives and canonical gatekeepers that cannot get out of their own way and let a Star Wars movie simply take wing. Lord & Miller loyalist I certainly am, and maybe their approach and style wasn’t ever going to work for Star Wars. But the final product of Solo makes a compelling case that more should have been done at every level to make it work, because what we ended up with, while hardly a debacle, represents a definite missed opportunity for a franchise that, no matter its massive popularity, cannot afford many such misses.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

The Ten Verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, Ranked

The eleven-minutes-plus closing track on American folk-rock balladeer Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, “Desolation Row” is a rambling, evocative surrealistic trip through history, literature, society, and politics, with poetic images and resonant vignettes featuring enigmatically-sketched characters separated through ten verses. Each of these verses close with a line referencing the titular location, a place both romantically symbolic and agonizingly real, a grimy but indistinctly paradisical setting for the grinding suffering of proletarian life whose simple truths are repeatedly desired by the song’s numerous broken dreamers and fallen luminaries.

Like the modern poems that it references and self-consciously resembles (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a clear touchstone, and not just because its author appears in the lyrics), “Desolation Row” can be a difficult work to approach interpretively, so dense is its allusiveness and ambiguous is its symbolic imagery. Perhaps through the current online media ranking listicle format, that interpretive work of one of Dylan’s greatest compositions can be done in a manner that is as readable as it is modestly insightful. Therefore, here is an analytical ranking of the ten verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.

Desolation Row from Paul Tattam on Vimeo.

10. Verse 3

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

The weakest of the verses of “Desolation Row” reads like a parody of its strongest: poetic descriptions turned on their heads by wry jokes (the astrologist frustrated by a clouded night without celestial reference points for her predictions) and suggestions of social inversion (the dandy Good Samaritan preparing for a bacchanal) alongside a classic decontextualized gnomic Dylan couplet (“Everybody is making love / Or else expecting rain”). What drives this verse to the bottom, though, is the unclear shout-outs to Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike most other figures referenced by Dylan in the lyrics, these aren’t really doing anything, and it’s uncertain if they are there of their own accord or as the fortune-telling lady’s “things”. Most of the better verses in the song build a tone, a mood, and a character as well, but this third verse is just there, existing. Sadly, it’s filler.

9. Verse 10

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Or’s that some kinda joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

The song’s final verse offers a clever departing post-modern reframing of what has come before, returning to the ordinary and mundane realm of gossiping letters, broken doorknobs, and petty disagreements after the phantasmagorical name-dropping of the first nine verses. It’s a self-conscious and self-deprecating move in classic Dylan form: these iconic figures from literature and history and the imagination embroiled in their symbolically-elevated struggles are just stand-ins and aliases for mutual acquaintances of the narrator and his letter-penning frienemy. The reductiveness of it is knowing but kind of archly so, as the fiery young Dylan could often be, especially in his immediate post-electric period when much of his folk fanbase was calling for his head as a sell-out betrayal (ironically, “Desolation Row” is the sole acoustic folk track on Highway 61 Revisited). Separated musically from the dreamscape verses by a trademarked wheezing harmonica solo, these lines are far less imaginative and striking as those that led up to them and grate slightly in their suggestion that none of those words really mattered or meant a thing. Ever ready to confound, Dylan does return to the semi-chorus repetition of the titular locale at the end, however, suggesting slyly that maybe it wasn’t all such a lark after all.

8. Verse 6

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on the pennywhistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The difficulty in the verse ranking begins to show at this point, when the quality distinction between Dylan’s word clusters becomes so fine and slight that prioritizing one over another becomes a matter of personal preference. So I will say that Verse 6 is more or less one of my least favourite. Its ambiguity is nearly impenetrable and there are few truly memorable phrases that jump out and arrest your attention. Dylan is on an anti-medicine kick, one supposes, challenging the authority of medical professional in his iconoclastic way, but little of it coheres, let alone enthralls. The verse’s rhythm has a good flow, anyway, which distinguishes it a little from those ranked below it.

7. Verse 1

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad, they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The opening verse of “Desolation Row” is a scene-setting one, and as such is far from its finest. That said, for a song full of the surreal, the seemingly-unlikely opening line is actually a chilling reference to an all-too-real American horror: the lynching of African-Americans in the South, which often manifested as twisted communal events which would sometimes be photographed and commemorated with prints and cards for sale depicting the extrajudicial execution of other human beings. The reference to the restless riot squad, itching for “somewhere to go” to violently put down uppity citizens, is also a wry critique of the pre-conditions of police brutality. But why are the passports being painted brown? Is this a reference to a fascist bureaucracy? And the blind commissioner stuff just does not land.

6. Verse 7

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get outta here if you don’t know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

A priestly Phantom of the Opera presiding over a fashionable feast, ostensibly thrown to punish the consummate romantic lover Casanova by inflating his ego with flattery before tearing him down again. The young Dylan’s notorious distaste for social functions and the polite niceties that sustain them is expanded here to a tableau of institutionalized social torture, directed by a posing cleric of the church played by a refined gothic-romantic monster of the underground. It’s not the strongest verse or the point most worth making, but it’s certainly consistent.

5. Verse 5

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Most of the verses that feature historical or cultural characters mix them together in provocative combinations. Not (precisely) so Verse 5, which casts “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood” as a sad faded figure “with his memories in a trunk” who “was famous long ago” as a musician. Dylan has often returned to the tragic street-level ramblings of the homeless as a contemporary urban iteration of the nomadic hobo culture that fascinated his musical hero Woody Guthrie, and Einstein/Robin Hood (the modern paragon of scientific genius hiding in the guise of the mythical inequality-leveling sylvan outlaw) strikes a transient pose, bumming cigs, “sniffing drainpipes” (drug addiction?) and “reciting the alphabet” (low-key mental derangement?). Religion is poked in the eye again, with his monastic friend engaging in the sin of envy. Breaking the top half of the rankings among such marvelous collisions of words is no mean feat, but describing this engimatic figure as “so immaculately frightful” is the kind of magnificent use of language that defines Bob Dylan at his best.

4. Verse 2

Cinderella, she seems so easy
It takes one to know one, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

I can now admit that, as a younger man, I nursed a considerable crush on Dylan’s insouciant Cinderella with “her hands in her back pockets / Bette Davis style”. This image raises this verse’s profile above a couple of those ranked just behind it in my estimation, although the suggestion that the insufferably moony Romeo is confronted and perhaps brutally beaten for his romantic excesses (one of many suggestions of genuine sentiment being strongly punished by an uncaring social order) provides a dark lining to Cinderella’s attitude and casual cleaning at the conclusion.

3. Verse 9

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Dylan’s vocals gain such an uncanny force by the latter stages of “Desolation Row” that it elevates his lyrics and their meanings. This verse scarcely needs elevating, featuring his deepest and most evocative name-drop reference: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the exemplars of modernist poetry, fighting in the captain’s tower of the doomed Titanic, that maritime symbol of Gilded Age ambition and inequality. The whole verse has a marine theme from Neptune (the Roman god of the sea, linked disturbingly to that most infamously nasty emperor, Nero) to the great passenger liner to fishermen and mermaids and even the laughing calypso singers (reflecting the folk-scene vogue of Caribbean music, just as the fishermen holding flowers reference flower-child hippie subculture). There’s a troubling privileged escapism to these “windows of the sea”, as Dylan suggests the complacent rich elite walking the decks of their yachts and ignoring the socioeconomic deprivation (or does it represent a form of proletarian authenticity here?) of Desolation Row. There’s no need to interpret “Everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?'” as anything less than an invocation of the sharpening political divisions of 1960s America, divisions all the more stark and calcified a half-century later.

2. Verse 4

Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia’s verse is a singular character sketch, like Verse 5 but stronger, more focused, and more sympathetic. Dylan’s stance towards women in his songs is decidedly mixed; as great as his definitive song “Like A Rolling Stone” is, for example, it rather glories in schadenfreude at the diminished circumstances of its fallen elite socialite female lead before disingenuously suggesting that her poverty represents a kind of freedom. But here Dylan summons an empathy and understanding of the plight of Hamlet’s callously discarded girlfriend that even William Shakespeare fails to possess in one of the central texts of the English literary canon. Too much examination of and empathy for Ophelia would expose the Prince of Denmark’s self-involved quest for the irresponsible body-count-generating recklessness that it is. But Dylan feels “so afraid” for her and her lonely, suicidal, faith-driven romanticism. He sees her as a modern figure of tragic alienation, and gives her the most sublime of his images (“And though her eyes are fixed upon / Noah’s great rainbow”), delivered with a growing vocal force that exposes the prejudices against his singing as dull and unfounded. And yet this romantic aspiration of Ophelia’s is, as we know, ultimately fatal, and her eyes rise to the sky but continue to linger on the dirty gutters as well.

1. Verse 8

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

The most sinister and sharply political of the song’s verses is also its most powerful and hardest to shake. Employed by Alan Moore in his seminal graphic novel Watchmen to drive home his darkly serious vision of conflicted superheroes in a world of injustice, corruption, and oppression, the opening lines suggest an authoritarian regime rounding up dissidents and intellectuals before detailing their confinement not in dank prison holes but in the death-house production centres of industrial capitalism. This work-prison of productive exploitation suggests continuity from ancient feudal privileges (the reference to castles) and is overseen by not only the subalterns of state power but by the ordinary middle-manager insurance men. Desolation Row here is the last bastion of freedom, an enclave of liberty in a sea of strife. “Desolation Row” in general explores social decay, institutional breakdown, and the fuzzy margins of democratic capitalist society. But in this stunning verse, sung with waxing force by Dylan, the general critique becomes scaldingly specific: capitalism is the new force of oppression in the world, a sinister force to be feared and resisted.

Categories: Culture, Music

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.