I wrote a blog post about Pauli Murray in 2019. This weekend, I had the opportunity to see the new documentary about her, My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the team who directed RBG. The film was screened as part of the virtual 2021 Sundance Festival. I can’t find a current trailer or website for this film, though there are some reviews and articles.
I agree with Jude Dry, writing in IndieWire, when they say “While the film doesn’t transcend cinematic heights beyond that of a workaday biopic, it handles the more complex aspects of Murray’s story with nuance and conveys the Black queer trailblazer’s story with requisite reverence.”
Selecting a pronoun to use for Murray is difficult, as some of the people interviewed the film point out. Murray (1910-1985) didn’t live in a time when “they/them” was in any kind of common usage, but it seems like the best choice for someone assigned female at birth who never was able to settle into a female body, and spent decades and thousands of dollars trying to find evidence that they might have undescended testicles or other assigned-male characteristics.
Murray’s life story is extraordinarily complex and layered. Perhaps best known (though nowhere near well enough) is Murray the civil-rights trailblazer. The film begins this story by covering their first experience refusing to move to the back of the bus (a decade before Rosa Parks’ famous moment) and subsequent jail stay.
After providing a stunning split-screen image of Black children leaving a run-down unmaintained school, and morphing into an image of White children leaving a cheerful, affluent school, the film-makers bring in Murray’s law-school paper opposing Plessy v. Ferguson (the notorious Supreme Court case upholding “separate but equal”). They draw an unambiguous line between that paper and the eventual arguments Thurgood Marshall and his team used, to overturn Plessy and replace it with Brown vs. Board of Education, which mandates integration. Spottswood Robinson, Murray’s professor at Howard and a member of the Marshall team, told Murray that they had used her legal theories in crafting their brief.
Of course, the movie covers Murray’s mentorship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including a brief moment of RBG herself singing the praises of Pauli Murray. It also spends time on Murray’s quite deep and lasting friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which grew from Murray’s letters to President Franklin Roosevelt asking probing questions about Black rights, or the lack thereof.
Rather than center itself on racial issues and legal triumphs, the film spends perhaps an equal amount of time on Murray’s gender identity and presentation, and features a number of contemporary nonbinary voices, along with Murray’s own words in letters and other writings. The film-makers go to appropriately great lengths to clarify just how important gender was to Murray, and how valuable that part of their story is to people who have later carved their own path into a gender role and presentation they can be comfortable with.
Scenes in Professor Britney Cooper’s classroom at Rutgers are one device the directors use to context Murray’s importance in Black history. As Cooper teaches Murray’s accomplishments, we are reminded that while they certainly did not comfortably identify as female, they faced all of the obstacles and oppressions of being a Black female in their time, and what that meant to entering the professional legal world. Murray was turned down by law schools because of their race. They went to Howard University, and graduated at the top of their class. Then they were turned down from what was usually an automatic chance for top-rank Howard students to study further at Harvard Law … because of “her” sex.
Their attempts to get a law firm job after graduation prefigure those of Ginsburg and her classmates a few years later; Murray, without the connections and/or husbands of the Harvard women, opened their own law firm in California.
We are given a window into the stories of Murray’s major relationships with women, and a searing vision into the pain Murray experienced when their lover died. And we also get a later chapter of Murray’s life, when they became an Episcopal priest and explored yet another aspect of themself, astonishing many of their friends.
When I wrote about Murray two years ago, I closed with “I find it impossible to think about Murray without wishing I had known her.” That’s even more true since I saw the movie
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