'My Name Is Pauli Murray': Film Review | Sundance 2021

My Name is Pauli Murray
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A must-see doc about a must-know subject.

'RBG' filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West return with a documentary portrait of a forgotten but brilliant queer Black legal scholar who influenced Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Lawyer, scholar, priest and queer pioneer Pauli Murray is exactly the kind of historical personage for whom the phrase “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of them before!” exists. No less than Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were indebted to Murray for their legal triumphs in overturning segregation and discrimination against women. “We literally live in an architecture of the world that Pauli Murray built,” says Professor Brittney Cooper in the new bio-doc My Name Is Pauli Murray. But for all that they contributed to society, Murray was just as committed to being their truest self — whether that meant trainhopping during the Depression, moving to a newly independent Ghana or entering a seminary at the age of 63.

Born in 1910 and effectively orphaned by age three, Murray was raised in the Jim Crow South by their namesake aunt Pauline, who lovingly referred to them as “my boy/girl.” (Murray struggled with their gender identity throughout their life, convinced they had undescended testes and in search of testosterone shots for many years. Some believe that were Murray alive today, they would identify as a trans man. The film’s interviewees most often refer to Murray as “she” and “they”; this review uses the pronouns “they/them.”)

“Pauli Murray is so spectacular,” proclaims Cooper, “that I literally cannot cover all her firsts and all her dopeness.” Indeed, it is precisely the extraordinariness of Murray’s life that makes it difficult to recount in its fullness and many unpredictable zigs and zags. Perhaps that’s why directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who helmed the 2018 documentary RBG, opt for a dry chronological approach, with frequent signposts indicating how many years earlier Murray had argued or agitated for certain causes before the boldface names we’re more familiar with today. The sequential, numbers-heavy structure can make for plodding viewing, especially in the film’s first half. But the doc is ultimately a thoughtful and sensitive tribute to a luminary who should be a household name.

By the age of 40, Murray had made headlines for their desegregation activism, become (or was considered) the first female alum of Howard University’s law school (graduating at the top of the class), wrote a book that Justice Marshall himself called a "bible" in the fight for civil rights, fallen in love for the first (though not the last) time with a woman and befriended Eleanor Roosevelt. (In a coup for the film’s archival sourcing, the First Lady is briefly seen gracing the cover of a 1953 issue of Ebony with the probably then-progressive headline, “Some of my best friends are Negroes.”)

In the next three-and-a-half decades of their life, Murray would go on to popularize the concept of Jane Crow (the now-common-sensical idea that Black women suffer from racism in different ways than Black men), co-found the National Organization for Women (NOW), publish a book of poetry and throw away economic stability at least twice — as an attorney and as a tenured professor — to pursue a life better suited for justice and service. They weren’t always the right decisions, as an ill-fated professorship in Ghana under increasingly dictatorial rule would prove, but they do illustrate the extent to which the restless and adventurous Murray was willing to go to follow their calling.

Quiet and retiring, Murray let their passion show most readily through their words, lyrical snippets — like “hope is a song in a weary throat” — of which we see on screen. Murray also appears in video footage and audio recordings, but West and Cohen argue most convincingly for their subject’s brilliance through talking heads, including Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (a classmate at Yale, where Murray pursued their Ph.D. in their 50s), trans/queer lawyers and activists who see Murray as a progenitor and, in a lovely surprise, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom it is an absolute joy to behold once again.

After organizing the kind of sit-in protests that would become famous in the 1960s two decades earlier, Murray was less than impressed by the civil rights movement of the Kennedy and Johnson era. By then, Murray was a 50-something professor at Brandeis, where they alienated some of their African-American students with their intractable preference for the old-fashioned term “Negro” over “Black.” For me, it’s a charming detail, revealing the fact that while Murray was so ahead of their time that their writings helped win a LGBTQ rights case in 2020 (more than three decades after their death), they were also going to be no more, and no less, than thoroughly their entire self.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Production companies: Drexler Films, Participant, Storyville
Directors: Betsy West, Julie Cohen
Producer: Talleah Bridges McMahon
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Diane Weyermann, Elise Pearlstein, Peggy Drexler
Director of photography: Claudia Raschke
Editor: Cinque Northern
Composer: Jongnic Bontemps

91 minutes