One of the best parts of attending a film festival (and there are many) is finding yourself with a few unscheduled hours and no pressing plans: it’s that rare window to walk into a film entirely free of expectation and simply see what happens. I wasn’t sure a similar experience could be replicated when a film festival happens online, but as luck would have it I had just such an experience on one of the last days of screenings. I knew I wanted to fit in one more film for the day but wasn’t sure what to choose based on what was still available. For reasons still not all that clear to me, I ended up on My Name is Pauli Murray, ready to experience a film I knew absolutely nothing about and hope for the best. Fortunately for me, I’d stumbled onto one of Sundance’s hidden gems, the kind of film that gets brought up when you’re catching up with friends after a long day of screenings and they ask you what you saw and what you liked. It hasn’t received the attention of other biographical docs in this year’s program, and that’s an utter shame; the film, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is an enlightening and engaging affair from start to finish.
Pauli Murray was a poet, a lawyer, an ordained minister. She was an activist, a community member, an aunt. She was a non-binary person in a time when that descriptor hadn’t even been invented yet (I’m using she/her pronouns because those are what Pauli used publicly and what those who knew her used, though some in the documentary do use they/them). Pauli Murray was thinking critically about issues like civil rights, gender equality, income inequality and more long before they became part of a national conversation. “I lived long enough to see my lost causes be found,” Murray says at one point in this worthy tribute to a life well spent. And it’s true, particularly in the case of gender equality. The late (great) Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is interviewed about the impact of Murray’s work on her own legal arguments when she appeared before the Supreme Court as a lawyer with the ACLU. RBG acknowledges outright, and with appropriate gratitude, that she used Murray’s themes and thinking in forming her own case on the matter. It’s a stunning revelation for someone (like me!) who had never even heard Murray’s name before.
And this is where My Name is Pauli Murray becomes so special. Where any film that chronicles a noteworthy life is noble art, a historical record of those who came before us, the films about artists, actors, politicians and others whose stories are already so well known can often seem like fluff, yet another review of a legacy we already know inside and out. Here, then, is the opposite in that it’s a beautifully crafted film that brings Pauli Murray, a name far less well known but just as important, into the spotlight. And Cohen and West manage to do so in a way that forms a thoughtfully whole picture of Murray, someone who was as committed to her work as she was conflicted about her own identity. With grace and self-awareness, the filmmakers explore Murray’s ongoing exploration of her sexuality and her gender identity all in an effort to better understand who she really was. Through her own letters, both personal and professional (she became lifelong friends with none other than Eleanor Roosevelt after writing a letter to the First Lady), and in conversation with Murray’s great niece and others, a rather extensive and complex portrait comes together, that of a woman with much to accomplish externally and much to investigate internally.
Murray was someone who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of her fellow human beings, someone who was constantly fighting for what was right, standing up for those without a voice. She spent her life learning and growing and always aiming to give something back to the world around her; when she felt she’d exhausted her work as a lawyer, she rather late in life decided to become a minister, a puzzling choice to those who knew her at the time—how could a woman so driven by fact-based arguments and logic embrace something as intangible as faith? But in the grand scheme of her life, as presented in My Name is Pauli Murray, such a shift makes perfect sense, an understandable next step for a person so intent on finding the answers, wherever they may be. Murray’s name is nowhere near as familiar as so many others who worked equally as hard during the same timeframe. It is our great luck, then, that her life and legacy have now been recounted, preserved and, most importantly, honored in this moving, meaningful new film.
My Name is Pauli Murray is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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