NEW TO THEATERS! Who? That question is what this queer film critic posed when asked to review My Name is Pauli Murray. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1910, Pauli Murray was raised by her grandparents in Durham, North Carolina, and nurtured by a kind aunt who earned a living as a school teacher. Accepted and understood, Murray’s nascent gender fluidity was tolerated and bargained with to mitigate societal norms while growing up.
At the age of 16, she moved back to New York, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, and later became the inspiration of multiple social movements based on her perceptions of human equality and social justice. This documentary from co-directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West takes an understandably encyclopedic approach to the American icon that is unquestionably thorough, yet lacking the strong emotional thread that would send it into classic status.
“What is often called exceptional ability is nothing more than persistent endeavor.” -Pauli Murray
Did you know that 15 years before Rosa Parks took her stand against inequality on a bus, Murray had already been thrown in jail for the same offense? Yes, after passing the Mason-Dixon line on Easter vacation from New York to visit family, she found the idea that she must move for white passengers a violation of the 14th amendment. Her experience here, in jail, and subsequently with the African-American lawyers of the ACLU at the time sparked a fire in her that never seemed to let up.
“…[Murray] became the inspiration of multiple social movements based on her perceptions of human equality and social justice.”
From here, Murray inspired Supreme Court judgments, helped the National Organization for Women, and coined the phrase “Jane Crow Laws” to call out laws that discriminated based on sex or gender identity. This was a person who lived way ahead of their time and impatiently fought not just for racial but also for sexual and, ultimately, human equality.
“True community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.” -Pauli Murray
Yes, the subject of My Name is Pauli Murray is basically an unsung American hero that has fundamentally driven the arguments of human equality on multiple fronts. This is a pristine record of a remarkable figure, but the fire that drove Murray seems to be lacking in a way. In one passage, a relative recollects that Murray could be impatient, terse even. A former student recalls visiting Murray’s home, where she lived with “friend” Irene Barlow. While never coming out and saying she was gay, the students say that if you knew her, you just knew.
My biggest note for the documentary is that it became so meticulous about facts and documentation that, even with voice-over recordings of Murray and interviews with family, we never felt or connected with Murray’s thirst for justice on a visceral level. It never argued her case but merely proved how time and again she was right. This is a reverent documentary, an important one at that. Yet, it lacks the element that would make even the disinterested take notice.
Minor misgivings aside, My Name is Pauli Murray should be required viewing for any female, person of color, or member of the queer community.
"…should be required viewing for any female, person of color, or member of the queer community."