If anyone deserves to have a moment, it’s Pauli Murray. In fact, as “My Name Is Pauli Murray” demonstrates, the poet, activist, legal scholar, teacher and Episcopal priest at the center of this illuminating documentary deserves to have millions of moments.
While they were researching their hit film “RBG,” directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen discovered that Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Murray with helping to shape her legal reasoning on the issue of sex discrimination. Intrigued, the team began to research Murray and found a warm, charismatic and courageous figure who was routinely decades ahead of her time.
Fifteen years before civil rights activist Rosa Parks helped instigate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, Murray was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of a bus in Petersburg, Va. Although the action didn’t get as much media as later efforts, it spurred Murray to pursue a legal career, during which she anticipated the Brown v. Board of Education decision, her scholarship forming the foundation of Thurgood Marshall’s pivotal argument 10 years later.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” delivers a lively, revelatory litany of all the things Murray got right first in a career that was driven by equal parts intellectual curiosity and call to service. As Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers University associate professor explains to her class in the film, “I can’t begin to cover all her accomplishments and all her dopeness.”
Murray, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Durham, N.C., also was gay and gender nonconforming. Although she had a meaningful decadeslong relationship with Irene Barlow in adulthood, the most painful passages of “My Name Is Pauli Murray” recount her struggles with homophobia and an androgynous identity that today is widely understood as being something other than cisgender. (Some of the sources in “My Name Is Pauli Murray” insist on referring to Murray as they/them to honor a figure they consider a trans pioneer.)
Although it’s easy to lionize Murray, who died in 1985, for her activism and acute political mind, it’s her language and writing – her “confrontation by typewriter” – that prove most shatteringly on point in “My Name Is Pauli Murray.” At every turn, it seems, she brings an original and precise lens to everything from discrimination (she brilliantly conceives of Jim Crow-era segregation as performances for the benefit of white spectators) to the foundational values that animated her extraordinary life and career.
“America, be what you proclaim yourself to be,” she exhorts early in the film. We’re still trying.