Sundance Review: “My Name Is Pauli Murray”

Year: 2021
Runtime: 91 minutes
Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West

By Morgan Roberts

Who was Pauli Murray? Murray was a lawyer, an educator, a Civil Right’s activist, an author, an Episcopalian priest, a labor rights activist, and a pioneer for women’s rights. Without the work of Pauli Murray, many achievements in women’s rights and LGBTQ rights movements would have never been realized. From directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the team who brought us “RBG” (2018), bring us the new documentary film “My Name is Pauli Murray” (2021).

I was not familiar with Pauli Murray before learning Cohen and West were premiering this film at Sundance. Murray was a trailblazer. 15 years before Rosa Parks was arrested for not moving to the back of a bus, Pauli and a friend, Adelene McBean, were arrested in Petersburg, VA. They had refused to move to the back of a Greyhound bus while traveling to North Caroline. After the incident, Pauli contacted the NAACP; Pauli and lawyers attempted to turn this incident into a Civil Right’s case to begin challenging bus segregation. But, like what many Black people meet, the courts were able to out maneuver Murray and McBean.

A still from My Name is Pauli Murray by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lynne Conroy. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

From there, Pauli led an extraordinary life fighting for justice. After the University of North Carolina refused to admit Pauli due to racial discrimination, Pauli wrote to then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Pauli and Eleanor would become friends after many correspondences. When Eleanor was made the 1st Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, Pauli was appointed as well.

There is honestly not enough time to talk about all that Pauli. But here are just a few things about Pauli that struck me. The first, as you may have noticed, I am only referring to Pauli as Pauli, because during Pauli’s life, Pauli was forced to use female pronouns, but in Pauli’s writings, we have learned that Pauli’s gender identity was far more complex than language was able to hold at that time, and that the English language still struggles to hold sometimes. The film delves into this throughout the piece and that is so important that, when looking at historical figures, we aim to respect them with the new language we have available to use. I really appreciated the filmmakers interviewing LGBTQ+ activists and educators to provide us with context we could easily miss.

The filmmakers take us on a journey to provide us with the foundation of Pauli’s life and work, and it is up to us to continue our education, in hopes of learning from trailblazer Pauli Murray.

Additionally, I was astounded to learn that without Pauli Murray, Brown v. Board of Education would not have been able to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy v. Ferguson was a United States Supreme Court decision in 1896 that asserted “separate but equal” which allowed for state-sponsored segregation like in schools. 10 years prior to Brown v. Board of Education, while at Howard University, Pauli published a piece asserting that discrimination of any time is inherently wrong and asserted that the 14th Amendment provides equal protections from discrimination. Was Pauli’s work acknowledged? No. But, there was someone who used this same theory and they did cite Pauli. That person was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the time, Justice Ginsberg was a lawyer with the ACLU and taking on gender discrimination cases. When Justice Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court in the Reed v. Reed case, she wrote in Pauli as a co-author.

It was Justice Ginsburg who introduced Cohen and West to Pauli Murray and Pauli’s work. The film gives us the tip of the iceberg of who Pauli was and all that Pauli accomplished. But as someone educated in the United States, who knew who Justice Ginsburg was, who read about Brown v. Board of Education, it feels wrong that Pauli Murray was not included in my education. The filmmakers take us on a journey to provide us with the foundation of Pauli’s life and work, and it is up to us to continue our education, in hopes of learning from trailblazer Pauli Murray.

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