I found it absolutely terrible that I’d not heard of Pauli Murray. History does not give Pauli credit for their work, for their vision, for their extraordinary words. Once I read the synopsis of the documentary, I knew I had to watch the film. For me, it was incredible to learn about Pauli, their life, their words, and the interviews that speak of Pauli and all the amazing events of Pauli’s life. The documentary does a wonderful job of demonstrating Pauli’s importance and work along with the impressions of others to create a beautiful narrative about an extraordinary person.
My Name is Pauli Murray is a documentary film directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, written by West, Cohen, Talleah Bridges McMahon, and Cinque Northern. The film follows the life of lawyer and activist Pauli Murray who was instrumental in arguing the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment outlawed discrimination based on sex. Several scholars of Murray’s work are featured in the film including Brittney Cooper and Rosalind Rosenberg. The film also highlights Rosenberg’s book Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray and the influence of Murray on Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Many times we forget about the contributions of the past, in particular those of people of color and those who are different like Pauli Murray. 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, a full decade before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation, Pauli Murray was already knee-deep fighting for social justice. An attorney, activist, priest, and poet, Murray shaped landmark litigation and consciousness around race and gender equity. As an African American youth raised in the segregated South, who also wrestled with gender identity, Murray understood intrinsically what it was to exist beyond accepted categories and cultural norms. With that unique perspective, Pauli’s tireless advocacy foreshadowed some of the most politically consequential issues of our time. The film provides this perspective through the medium of Murray’s own words, interviews with scholars, relatives, and those impacted by Murray’s work.
The documentary excels in shining a light on Pauli Murray and Murray’s work. As creative and incredible as Murray, the film weaves Pauli’s words, Murray’s writings and papers, into the narrative on Murray’s life, including her great-niece Karen Rouse Ross, who was with Murray in the final days, students of Murray’s, scholars, and those impacted by Murray’s work. As Murray’s life is explored, the documentary blends those words to give a full vision of Murray including gender identity and the queer life Murray led. Not only do they show how impactful the work was to laws and gender protections but how Murray’s own struggles informed new generations as they embrace being queer or transgender.
The most compelling piece of the film was Murray’s own words, detailing thoughts on gender, sexual discrimination, on segregation in America, even work and schooling as Muarray navigated life. Those words lead us through that extraordinary life, as Murray grows up in the South but in a family that left Murray free of boundaries. Murray goes to college in New York, homeless as a vagabond on the trains, a lawyer both solo and in a partnership where Murray was the only African American person to struggles with feeling like a man, relationships with women that tore Murray’s heart apart and bouts of depression. Murray was a teacher, a friend of Eleanore Roosevelt, traveled to Ghana, as well as a professor of law. All of these pieces paint an authentic and clear portrait of Pauli Murray.
This is a beautiful portrayal of an astonishing person who advanced race and gender rights, with her words, her teaching, her final days as an Episcopalian minister. Murray conceptualized and had a profound role on justice even when that work was not acknowledged. Murray loved and lived and now, this film gives us that life so that others can learn from that work, words, and life.
There is nothing about this documentary that hits any bad notes. The mix of words, interviews and voices is as perfect a mix for a documentary as any I’ve seen. More importantly, the film gives us the life of Pauli Murray whose work has been hidden for so long. With Murray’s writings in Schlesinger Library, we now have access to all those powerful words and insight into history that Murray can provide, recordings of Pauli and those that Murray mentored. It is a creative work like none other because of the vision and writings of the person it shares with the world.
If you love history, learning about important historical figures, if you believe we, as a culture, need to know more about the powerful African American voices in our midst, I cannot recommend this film enough. Pauli Murray was an insightful beautiful soul who not only was queer but didn’t identify as female and her impact was profound on this country. We need to hear about Pauli Murray and we need to learn the hidden histories of the United States. Watch this film because it will have a profound effect on your idea of America.
Rating: 5 of 5 historical moments.
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My Name Is Pauli Murray
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, a full decade before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation, Pauli Murray was already knee-deep fighting for social justice. A pioneering attorney, activist, priest and dedicated memoirist, Murray shaped landmark litigation—and consciousness— around race and gender equity. As an African American youth raised in the segregated South—who was also wrestling with broader notions of gender identity—Pauli understood, intrinsically, what it was to exist beyond previously accepted categories and cultural norms. Both Pauli’s personal path and tireless advocacy foreshadowed some of the most politically consequential issues of our time. Told largely in Pauli’s own words, MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY is a candid recounting of that unique and extraordinary journey. MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY opens in theaters on Friday, September 17, 2021 and will premiere on Amazon Prime on Friday, October 1, 2021.
ONE-LINER: A look at the life and ideas of Pauli Murray, a non-binary Black lawyer, activist and poet who influenced both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall.