Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Amazon releases the film in theaters on Friday, September 17 and streaming on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, October 1.
The greatest revelation in “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary about the poet, writer, activist, labor organizer, legal theorist, and Episcopal priest whose ideas shaped legal arguments for both race and gender equality, is that what made Murray so keenly attuned to the burdens of inequality — being Black, queer, and assigned female at birth — are the very things that robbed Murray of the recognition they so deserve. That is, until now.
Recent years have seen Murray sainted by the Episcopal Church, a Yale residential college established in their name, and the publication of two biographies: “The Firebrand and the First Lady” (2016), about Murray’s decades-long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray” (2017). “My Name Is Pauli Murray” draws on this research — as well as a crucial re-contextualizing from transgender community leaders — to deliver an accessible and proper tribute to Murray’s astounding life and work. 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.
Born in Baltimore in 1910, Pauli Murray was virtually orphaned by ten years old. Murray was raised in Durham, North Carolina, by their maternal grandparents and their Aunt Pauline, who was a schoolteacher. An avid reader from a young age, Murray’s first brush with discrimination came when they were denied admittance to UNC and Columbia, which at that time did not admit women. In the first example of what one researcher affectionately called “confrontation by typewriter,” Murray wrote to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt expressing outrage over UNC’s discriminatory admissions policy. While FDR did not respond, the First Lady did. Thus began a long and fruitful correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, who would become Murray’s friend and advocate over the years.
Murray attended Hunter College instead, moving in with family in Queens to establish residency in New York City. While traveling home for the holidays, Murray and then-girlfriend Adelene McBean were arrested for refusing to move from the white section of the bus. This was in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks’ Montgomery Bus Boycott, as the film makes sure to highlight in bold lettering. The film makes sure the emphasize how Murray was ahead of their time at every turn, so ahead that it would take years for their contributions to be recognized.
While attending Howard University law school, where they were the first woman admitted and the only one in the class, Murray organized a sit-in at a whites-only diner on U Street in Washington, D.C — a couple of decades before the 1960 Greensboro action that is widely considered the catalyst for the sit-in movement. After experiencing sexism from Black professors and classmates at Howard, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to articulate the compound effects of discrimination experience by Black women, a little less than fifty years before Kimberlé Crenshaw would first introduce the concept of intersectionality.
It was at Howard that Murray first argued for using the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, in a paper Murray’s professor Spottswood Robinson would refer to a decade later when helping craft the NAACP’s winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education. Though Murray’s contributions to that historic case would not be revealed until much later, Murray was credited on another landmark Supreme Court decision: 1971’s Reed v. Reed, in which Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully argued for the first time that the Equal Protection Clause includes women. Ginsburg added Murray and Dorothy Kenyon as co-authors in recognition of their contributions to the argument.
Although Murray graduated from Howard at the top of their class, they were denied entry to Harvard for post-graduate study, despite a letter of recommendation from FDR. In another of Murray’s famous “confrontations by typewriter,” they wrote: “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?”
Throughout the 1940s, Murray sought medical advice for what “Jane Crow” author Rosalind Rosenberg calls their “gender struggles.” Despite this indelicate framing, Rosenberg’s book was the first to publish Murray’s writings on gender and sexuality. The book and film include many photos of Murray in men’s clothing, as well as letters that reveal a dogged pursuit of testosterone and exploratory surgeries in search of hidden male genitalia. Murray did not have the language to identify as transgender, but thankfully trans activists Raquel Willis, Dolores Chandler, and Chase Strangio are featured prominently in the film to eloquently place Murray in the context of trans history.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” was directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen of “RBG” fame, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2019. The late justice Ginsburg appears briefly in the film, swathed in an elegant turquoise number, to call Murray “a feisty woman.” D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton provides additional colorful commentary, laughing to herself: “No one was a feminist then except Pauli Murray.”
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” balances Murray’s varied interests and causes with a deft hand, acknowledging their contributions to the women’s movement while not minimizing their trans-ness, as many scholars had done until Rosenberg’s book. The subjects interviewed use both she/her and they/them pronouns for Murray, making it the rare film that adequately captures the nuances of gender in a historical context. “I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray wrote towards the end of their life, but they didn’t know just how far their causes would reach.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres section.
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