Synopsis: Overlooked by history, Pauli Murray was a legal trailblazer, activist and poet whose ideas influenced RBG’s fight for gender equality and Thurgood Marshall’s landmark civil rights arguments.
Stars: Patricia Bell-Scott, Dolores Chandler, Brittney Cooper, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tina Lu, Marghretta McBean, Ernest R. Myers, Mary Norris
Director: Julie Cohen & Betsy West
Running Length: 91 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Sometimes you choose documentaries based on personal interest (guess what, I like documentaries about movies!) and sometimes documentaries choose you. Had My Name is Pauli Murray not been offered to me as a screening opportunity, I’m not sure I would have taken the time to review it and I actually declined the first time because of competing priorities. When it was offered again, I had an opening in my schedule and thought it would be good to expand my knowledge base outside of my usual scope and I’m so glad I did. You always learn something new from these films but in the case of this particular documentary feature, viewers that never knew the name Pauli Murray are in for an eye-opening look into the life of a pioneer activist that paved the way for many of the liberties we enjoy today.
Fairly early on one of the many people directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West interview own up to never having heard of Pauli Murray growing up and even into adulthood. They’re playing the pivotal role of audience member stand-in because I think most of the viewers will be in the same boat. Some of the achievements Murray set into motion or suggested have either been attributed to others or were part of a larger movement that absorbed their participation into a mere footnote. How did Murray come to be the strong-willed person they were? And being what we now know as non-binary (hence the they/them/their pronouns), how did they manage to live their personal life when the world was still unaccepting? Using a trove of archival material as well as audio recordings from Murray, the directors piece together a straightforward narrative of a life that was filled with achievements, setbacks, steps forward, and loss.
Now widely recognized as a key figure in the early Civil Rights movement and a vanguard in the fight for Women’s Equality, Murray was always first in the door but was often usurped by another similar situation down the line. They were involved with a bus re-seating incident years before the one that turned Rosa Parks into a symbol of freedom nearly a decade later as well as staging a sit-in at a diner to protest the unfair treatment of black Americans far earlier than the one made famous in national news. These facts aren’t presented to diminish these other important moments in the fight for Civil Rights, but to show that the work was being done already and a reason why these later events had such a groundswell of strong support is because the ACLU already knew how to approach the situation based on Murray’s involvement and strategizing.
I found the stories of Murray’s early years truly fascinating. Even before they became involved with more politicized work, they rode the rails and, perhaps as a precursor to their own investigation into their questions on gender, often lived life as a man as a way of protection. How lucky to have so many pictures from this era showing the evolution from child to teenager to young person. Eventually going into college to study law where they were again met with adversity, Murray eventually formed a life-long bond with Eleanor Roosevelt. Writing to the first lady to protest unfair treatment of their denial in admission to school, the two corresponded for much of Roosevelt’s life, with Roosevelt calling on Murray often to provide content and context for racial equality issues.
Discussions of Murray’s long-standing relationship are tender and there are a few tough sections involving Murray’s psychological problems that stemmed from gender confusion and a medical society that didn’t listen to the patient. Cohen and West provide good commentary for these eras of Murray’s life, although at times it does feel like the pundits are speaking a little too much about what Murray was thinking when all we can go on is the writings the activist left behind. Drawing too much into devised narrative is dangerous when the rest of the documentary is told from such a factual perspective.
A short but packed 91 minutes, My Name is Pauli Murray is an absolute must watch for anyone with interest in Civil Rights era activism, LGBTQ+ history, women’s history, and social reform. Everyone else should also take note of the opportunity to gain knowledge on a name not always featured in the first paragraph of the historical text but who likely should be mentioned among the greats. Pauli Murray was their name and now, thanks to this well-made and informative documentary, they won’t be forgotten.