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Shawn Vestal: Rachel Dolezal, back in the eye of the camera

Deshawn Bedford, a filmmaker, worked on the locally filmed scenes for the documentary “The Rachel Divide,” a Netflix original program now streaming on the service. It’s about Rachel Dolezal, a Spokane woman who is Caucasian, but presents herself as  African-American. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Deshawn Bedford, a filmmaker, worked on the locally filmed scenes for the documentary “The Rachel Divide,” a Netflix original program now streaming on the service. It’s about Rachel Dolezal, a Spokane woman who is Caucasian, but presents herself as African-American. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

DaShawn Bedford grew up in Spokane, graduated from Rogers High School, and taught himself video production. He’s 37, African-American, raising three kids – and his take on Rachel Dolezal is complicated.

“Obviously, the way I was raised, when it comes to who you are and where you are from, you shouldn’t fake the funk,” or not be truthful about yourself, Bedford said Friday. “But at the same time, it’s not that big of a deal to me. … She did a lot of good things, and helped a lot of people.”

In particular, he appreciated the way that Dolezal lit a political fire in Spokane, with its history of quieter racial politics.

“I had never been to an NAACP meeting or gathering until she got involved,” he said.

Eventually, Bedford would spend two years documenting what happened after Dolezal’s downfall, when it was revealed that she was born white in Montana and had been “identifying” as black. A producer at Community-Minded TV in Spokane, Bedford shot or helped shoot almost all of the footage as an assistant camera operator on “The Rachel Divide,” which premiered Friday on Netflix.

The film has provoked a chorus of reaction similar to all the other choruses of reactions that greet her every return to the spotlight: a ton of anger, resentment and criticism; a smidgen of think-piece-y “debate” about identity; and a stubborn refusal on Dolezal’s part to accept or even understand why so many people reacted so negatively to the way she adopted and performed a black identity.

Bedford and I watched the documentary together Friday. Among the interviews he shot was one between director Laura Brownson and me – some of which was included in the final film.

As he and I talked about the project, he expressed a sympathetic view of Dolezal as a mother trying to keep her family together while living under a siege of attention and criticism.

While I regard Dolezal as someone who has relentlessly sought to be the center of attention at a great cost to her causes and her family, Bedford credits her with sincere passion for trying to help. He says that’s why she doesn’t simply retreat into privacy, as many people wish she would.

“She really does want to be out there in the community helping in some form or fashion,” he said. “For her, it is hard.”

Plenty of others disagree, and the film makes that clear. Repeatedly, African-Americans in Spokane and elsewhere critique and challenge Dolezal as a “fraud” and “culture vulture.” At a university appearance, a largely black audience challenges her identification as black. One woman tells her she can’t just adopt black identity without going through the “initiation” – the litany of oppression and discrimination that she did not experience as a white woman.

Kitara Johnson, an African-American woman and member of the Spokane NAACP, said she thinks Dolezal came to believe the lie she was living for five years in Spokane.

“I believe, flat out, what she’s done is fraud, and she’s trying to cover it up with, let me just put something over it and call it transracial,” she said.

Others speak up in more supportive ways. Albert Wilkerson, a black man whom Dolezal once described as her father on Facebook, said he needed some “breathing time” away from her after he learned the truth about her identity.

But he also said, “If Rachel feels in her heart that she’s a black person, who are we to say she’s wrong?”

Generally, the film operates as an even-handed report on Dolezal’s story, starting with the now-famous footage of former KXLY reporter Jeff Humphrey asking her if she was African-American, then running through two years of the infamy that followed.

Brownson doesn’t take a strong point of view, but she does get a lot of access to Dolezal as she has a baby, co-writes a book, works on her art, raises her kids, puts in and takes out her famous braids, changes her name, heads to Seattle for a Black Lives Matter march – all while Dolezal insists that she was “framed as a liar” and was being treated unjustly.

The problem, now as ever, is the degree to which she seeks the attention she receives. Over and over during the film, she finds the brightest spotlight she can, whether it’s CNN or MSNBC or a New York Times Facebook chat. She delves into social media, reads her critics on Twitter and follows the comment sections. She writes a book and tours in support of it.

At one point, as she rides an elevator following an appearance on “The Today Show,” where she was asked whether she regretted any of the untrue things she’d said, she muses aloud, “What did I say that was not true? Can you give me an example?”

The way this obtuse publicity-seeking affects her kids is the film’s most potent and heartbreaking revelation. In particular, Franklin, who was a young teen at the time of the filming, repeatedly expresses his discomfort with her notoriety, worries whether TV interviewers will be nice to his mom, and points out – often with poignant candor – how hard Dolezal’s choices to go public are on him.

“This is going to affect more than just your life,” he tells her at one point before another media trip to New York City.

Later, he says, “I hope this all will go away so I can get on with my life and not worry about it.”

For Bedford, the cameraman, some of Franklin’s complaints trace back to cranky moods on certain days. Other times, he was happy to be doing the filming. Bedford said he hopes “The Rachel Divide” will help others see Dolezal and her family with more understanding, and help turn down the volume on the negative attention that comes their way.

“It definitely was a good look at her being a strong mother and trying to keep her family together,” he said.

It shows something else, too, at least to me. As she repeatedly tries to explain herself – and repeatedly draws down heavy fire on herself and her kids – what emerges is a picture of an attention addict, someone who flies to the bright light over and over, forgetting about the heat.

You see her get burned a lot in “The Rachel Divide.” But it never changes what she says about herself, or her seeming inability to understand the problems people have with it.

“People saw who I am for only a few years of my life,” she says, referring to the years where she rose to the leadership of the Spokane NAACP in the guise of a black woman.

“That’s really who I am.”