Review: My Name Is Pauli Murray (2021)

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My Name Is Pauli Murray (2021)

Directed by: Julie Cohen, Betsy West | 91 minutes | documentary | Starring: Pauli Murray, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Patricia Bell-Scott, Dolores Chandler, Brittney Cooper, Sonia Pressman Fuentes, Tina Lu, Marghretta McBean, Ernest R. Myers, Mary Norris, Rosalind Rosenberg, Karen Rouse Ross, Reggie Sapp, Inez Smith Reid, Chase Strangio, Raquel Willis

When it comes to human rights activists, Pauli Murray (1910-1985) is often overlooked. Wrongly, we learn from the documentary ‘My Name is Pauli Murray’ (2021) by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who open their film with the statement ‘You can’t teach American history without talking about Pauli Murray’. Already at the age of five, Pauli made herself heard for the first time, when she protested that her grandfather got three pancakes from her grandmother and she only one. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, Murray was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of the bus. And ten years before the United States Supreme Court overturned inequality legislation, Murray was a champion of social justice. A pioneering lawyer, activist, priest and writer, she shaped historic lawsuits and awareness of race and gender equality. Because in addition to the rights of blacks, she also fought for the equal treatment of women and she was a pioneer in what we now call LGBTI, but which was hardly noticed in the time in which Murray lived. She herself struggled with her own gender identity, which made her understand better than anyone what it was like to live outside previously accepted categories and cultural norms.

Murray tells her impressive life story largely in her own words; after all, she was a devoted memoir writer. With her progressive thinking, she was a major influence on many law students, activists and even Supreme Court justices in the US, notably Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. With her wealth of personal life experience and clear insight, she was an inexhaustible source of information that has inspired people for generations. West and Cohen delicately point out that even years after her death, Murray’s vision is still relevant, especially in the area of ​​LGBTI rights. In 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) applied its ideas in this area. Today it is becoming more and more common for someone to be ‘non-binary’, but Murray has spent her life searching and fighting for her place. In her early years she often pretended to be a teenage boy for safety reasons; thanks to her slender build and short hair, she got away with it. At a later stage, she even wanted to undergo a medical examination to discover whether male genitalia were present internally and in letters to close friends she indicated that she felt she was living in the wrong body. Incidentally, we do not use the designation ‘she/her’ and not ‘them/she’ out of disrespect, but to improve readability in this review; normally, the preference of the person in question is examined for this, but in this case it is no longer possible to determine that.

An illustrative anecdote of how straightforward and headstrong Murray was is that explaining that she preferred to talk about ‘Negro’ to her students over ‘black’, while for the younger generation that was a reference to ‘Uncle Tom’. But her reason for still preferring ‘Negro’ is that the word ‘black’ is never capitalized and is therefore demoralizing and denigrating. Also telling are the letters that the fierce Murray wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the then president of the US, in which she fulminated that ‘FDR’ had far too cowardly policy on the rights of African Americans. The two women continued to write, recognized each other and formed a close friendship that lasted for decades, which also brought Murray into contact with other political leaders such as John F. Kennedy, whom she also tried to influence. But the struggle was always there. Whether it was her skin color or her gender. ‘People talk about Jim Crow, well I’m dealing with Jane Crow’, she described the sexism she regularly faced. She wasn’t even allowed to speak during her first year of law at Howard University, and her Harvard education was canceled because only men were allowed to do so, even though she had the best grades of anyone. What would the gentlemen in charge then think if they heard that Murray got her own ‘Pauli Murray College’ at Harvard University in 2016!

The candid documentary ‘My Name is Pauli Murray’ offers a fairly complete and impressive overview of what Murray has accomplished. Especially for us Dutch and Belgians, who barely know Murray, a whole new world opens up. Murray was miles ahead of her time and it is beyond words how important her role has been for the rights of blacks, women and especially the LGBTI community. But the film also tells a kind of love story between Murray and Irene ‘Renee’ Barlow, her colleague at law firm Paul, Weiss, with whom she never lived but who is known as her great love. We hear snippets of letters going back and forth and sweet words Murray spoke while recording her second book of memoirs. It gives this documentary a slightly more personal touch.

Patricia Smagge

Rating: 3.5

VOD Release: October 1, 2021 (Prime Video)

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