There are some people who, when you hear about the lives they have led and all that they have accomplished, you have to wonder why you’ve never heard of them before. Pauli Murray, a ground-breaking lawyer, civil rights activist, Episcopal priest, author, and rejecter of traditional gender identities, is one such individual. Thanks to My Name is Pauli Murray, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, I’m no longer completely ignorant about Murray, although I’m sure there’s still much more to learn.
Two things I’m definitely not sure of: what pronouns to use in reference to Murray, and how to describe her gender identity. Both issues are discussed in the film (and at greater length elsewhere), but no one seems to have wholly satisfactory answers. From a modern point of view, Murray was certainly gender-nonconforming, and rejected a conventional feminine presentation in favor of an understated androgyny (given the times and her career, her decision to lean towards the side of discretion is wholly understandable). You can watch the film and decide for yourself how to describe her gender identity, but I can’t write this review without resolving the pronoun question. Murray used “she” and “her” to refer to herself, as did her family, so that’s what I’m going with here, although I’m certainly open to suggestions and the last thing I want to do is give offense.
Murray was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910, but was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. She spent her childhood as a black woman in the segregated South, in other words, but had no inclination to accept the limitations society wanted to place on her. At the age of 16, Murray moved to New York City to attend Hunter College, graduating with a degree in English.
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, in 1940 Murray was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a bus in Virginia, an experience that fueled her ambition to become a lawyer. Enrolling in law school at Howard University, she experienced another kind of discrimination, based on her perceived gender, which she called “Jane Crow.” Once again, Murray answered her doubters with sterling accomplishments, in 1965 becoming the first African American to be awarded a doctorate in law from Yale University.
Murray worked primarily in civil rights law, was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, and was recognized by another pioneer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for her groundbreaking work on gender discrimination. After serving on several law faculties, including one in Ghana, Murray left academia to become an Episcopal priest, the first African American woman to assume that role. She also wrote poetry and several memoirs which discuss her family’s racial background and her own struggles to escape the straightjacket of conventional gender roles.
There’s nothing formally adventurous about My Name is Pauli Murray, which sticks to the conventions of traditional documentaries constructed out of interviews, archival materials, and quotes from Murray herself. That’s not really a criticism, though, when a doc is so well done and creates such a rich portrait of Murray—instead, it stands as evidence that sometimes a straight-up traditional doc is the best form for the material. If the directors’ names sound familiar, it’s probably because between them they’ve directed and produced quite a few documentaries, and collaborated on the 2019 documentary RBG, which was nominated for two Oscars. | Sarah Boslaugh
My Name is Pauli Murray is available for on-demand viewing as part of the 24th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs June 2-6, 2021. Further information about festival passes and tickets is available from the festival web site.