As a social activist who pushed for desegregation on a public bus over a decade before Rosa Parks and participated in a restaurant sit-in years before the landmark event at a Woolworth’s in 1960, Pauli Murray is the definition of a trailblazer.
As an African-American woman (and someone who would now identify as non-binary) who intellectually poked the hypocritical agenda of a Roosevelt administration through pungent letters and ultimately became a close friend and political ally of Eleanor Roosevelt, Pauli Murray was an indefatigable presence in the push for personal rights.
With all of this, why is she such an unknown figure in our history? It’s a question asked by many in Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s new film, My Name Is Pauli Murray. In fact, the title of the documentary seems to reflect the stern statement of someone declaring that, yes, I have arrived. And we should all be grateful this pioneer is getting her due.
As the filmmakers behind the equally reverential RBG (2018), Cohen and West give Murray space to breathe. Starting as an activist and poet, morphing into a lawyer and ending up an Episcopalian priest (!), My Name Is Pauli Murray charts her exhaustive life through recorded sessions of her own voice, pictures, and testimonials from friends and family. A fairly nuts-and-bolts effort, what comes through most, however, is the righteous purpose she exhibited in everything she did thanks to the trove of papers that exist in library archives. Her passion and clear-eyed intentions were there at the very beginning, as well as shades of her tortured inner thoughts as a person who never felt true to her birth gender.
Also fascinating is Murray’s reaction to later civil rights movements such as the Black Panther Party or her use of the word “negro” that bristles her students during her tenure as a teacher in the 1960’s. It’s an interesting avenue the film goes down revealing that even the most ardent supporter of a movement can shift their perspective and become unfashionable with those that follow behind.
At a crisp 91 minutes, My Name is Pauli Murray is a wonderful lesson on someone almost forgotten by history. If that’s not the truest purpose of documentary film, then I don’t know what is.
My Name is Pauli Murray opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday September 17th. The film will begin streaming on Amazon October 1st.