Everyone should know who Pauli Murray is, and it’s baffling that more of us don’t. That’s the most effective aspect of the biographical documentary My Name is Pauli Murray: it does its best to leave audiences with the burning desire not only to know Murray’s history as a Black trans pioneer and incomparable mind, but to share Murray’s legacy with others. Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (the team behind RBG) pull from a physical archive of Murray’s extensively self-documented life to tell the nearly unbelievable story of an insatiable law student turned civil rights activist turned professor turned priest (and canonized Episcopalian saint!) whose accomplishments still feel markedly ahead of their time.
Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Maryland and raised by their maternal grandparents, and a favorite aunt who encouraged their learning and preference for pants over skirts, Murray would make quick work of dismantling every expectation placed on them. Their academic journey––which included enrolling as one of few Black women at Hunter College at the age of 16, graduating top of their law school class at Howard University, achieving the highest possible honor as a Doctor of Juridical Science at Yale, and winning a tenured position at Brandeis University––is only one formal aspect of their journey. In their professional career, they fought for labor, women’s, and human rights, writing the brief that would be the basis for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s use of the 14th Amendment to argue against “sex” discrimination, as well as the uncredited arguments Thurgood Marshall would use while chief counsel for the NAACP. Oh, and along the way, they were arrested for refusing to comply with state bus segregation laws before Rosa Parks, became a personal confidant to Eleanor Roosevelt, were appointed to the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women by John F. Kennedy, and co-founded the National Organization for Women.
Any of this would be enough to view Murray as an essential figure to American history, and each animated title card makes sure to emphasize that the timestamp of Murray’s boundary breaking was often a decade before more common knowledge demarcations. This alone is a reason to simultaneously mourn Murray’s passing, and celebrate their wherewithal to archive so much of their own perspective. Murray knew that they were a big frickin’ deal, and giving us access to their life post-mortem is an unquestionable gift.
It would be a pleasure to see a deeper dive into any one period of Murray’s history, as the glimpses into their personal life that the documentary does include are invaluable to recognizing Murray as a trans individual whose queer life was inextricable from their contributions. However, the film seems to know its limitations as a single documentary, and its wide breadth of subjects both personally and professionally associated with Murray provide a grounded, complex foundation.
The documentary could not have happened without the material support given by Pauli Murray themself. Although Murray died in 1985 at the age of 74, voice recordings of them dictating their memoir, home video footage, letters between paramours, photographs, and poetry create a rich inner life that supplements the film’s chronological map. Producer Talleah Bridges McMahon is largely responsible for the integration of Murray’s personal collection, and as directors West and Cohen mentioned in their Sundance Q&A, should be thought of as a third director for her indispensable archival research. Some of the most delightful visual pieces of the documentary are photographs of Murray as a young adult, reveling in their “male” disguises for hopping trains across the country. And Murray’s recorded and written poetic voice suffuses the film with a sense of urgency that’s not as readily achieved by the talking heads or the simply animated transitions and title cards.
As much as wielding words is Murray’s most striking gift, the documentary also shows difficulties with the navigation of language, and somewhat runs into itself in this aspect. A few of the more cataclysmic aspects of Murray’s health are touched on––not just difficult events, but Murray’s inability to publicly secure language and correct medical treatment that fully encompassed their identity. On this point, the directors make sure to include talking heads, including trans activist and writer Raquel Willis, and ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio, and correspondence that emphasize Murray’s queerness. However, the directors also never take more than an observational stance within the film, with many other talking heads using uncontested she/her pronouns for Murray throughout the film. This sort of calculated distance can come off as an aim for journalistic balance, but it also leaves a sour taste when Murray was, by their own admission to doctors, not a woman. The topic certainly opens up other outside reading, with the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice being an excellent place to start.
Another example of the limitations of language emerges in interviews with two of Murray’s former Brandeis students. While Murray was a refreshing professor in contrast to many of the white academic echelon on campus, their stances on empowering language were far different than that of the young Black students joining with the likes of the Black Panthers and other revolutionary Black power movements. In this, again, labels were restrictive rather than enlightening, and Murray felt isolated by their students’ resistance, while some students felt disappointed and put off by Murray’s anachronisms. Thankfully, this hasn’t stopped Murray from being remembered fondly by their students, and with a fondness and admiring bewilderment by many of their colleagues.
My Name is Pauli Murray most effectively serves as a springboard introduction to Murray’s voice. There is clearly so much more to Murray’s story, and the film is smart in featuring the names of Murray’s own works, as well as talking heads who have spent their lives promoting Murray’s importance. Now it’s up to us to read Murray’s works, and continue to remember that the history most readily available to us is often promoted by those with vested interests in rewrites that endorse white- and straightwashing. We might think that Murray was one of a kind, but there’s no telling who else textbooks have long kept hidden as a footnote.
My Name is Pauli Murray premiered at Sundance Film Festival.