I often scribble notes when I watch documentaries (particularly if I plan to write about them). My Name Is Pauli Murray filled pages and pages of my notebook. Betsy West and Julie Cohen (the brilliant directors of RBG) introduce us to an incredibly (incredibly) influential figure who was ahead of their time.
West and Cohen use their film to explore the life, career and legacy of Pauli Murray. Murray was a pioneering Black attorney, activist, priest, poet and memoirist who shaped landmark litigation - and consciousness - around race and gender equity and who fought tirelessly for civil rights reform.
The phrase “ahead of their time” is often used. However, with Pauli Murray it is earned and then some. West and Cohen examine how, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat and a full decade before the US Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation, Murray was already fighting for equality and social justice.
Murray came up with the concept of Jane Crow - raising awareness about how African American women were being doubly discriminated against - and spent much of her career disproving the toxic and devastating idea that “blacks were inherently inferior to whites and women were inherently inferior to men”.
All the while, and throughout their life, Murray struggled with their gender identity at a time (the late 1930s, early 1940s) when language did not exist to express what it means to be trans gender. It is heartbreaking. However, in their film, West and Cohen reveal how this struggle helped Murray to understand just what it meant to live outside some of society's accepted cultural norms and the changes that needed to be made.
West and Cohen's film moves through Murray’s fascinating life story using Murray’s own words (thankfully they were a prolific diarist and archivist - the documentary includes extracts from their audio recordings), insightful archive materials and fascinating contributions from talking heads. On this journey, I wondered why, before watching this film, didn’t I know more about Pauli Murray? Why don’t we all know more about Pauli Murray?
Thanks to this insightful and comprehensive film I, for one, will not forget their name. West and Cohen’s wonderful portrait reveals Pauli Murray and explores the lasting impact of their work. This documentary is a must-watch.