Movie of the Week: ‘My Name is Pauli Murray’

“My Name is Pauli Murray” (2021): “I want to see America be what she says she is in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  America, be what you proclaim to be!” – Pauli Murray

During the opening few minutes of the documentary “My Name is Paul Murray”, Karen Rouse Ross – who is Pauli Murray’s grand-niece and the executrix of her estate – explains, “Pauli did not share a lot about her life with me.  I knew she was a priest.  I knew she had been a lawyer, but she never ever mentioned any of her accomplishments.  I went and read (her papers), and then I realized, ‘Oh my God.’” 

Ross may not have known Pauli’s accomplishments, but admittedly, I never heard of Pauli Murray. 

Shame on me.

About 50 minutes into this doc, I began to realize that Murray – who passed away in 1985 at the age of 74 – was a civil rights and women’s rights champion whose impact rivals Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s.  In fact, about 10 minutes later, the film points out that Murray pushed the ACLU to accept Ginsburg on its board.  

The parallels between the two women, as well as their accomplishments, are staggering.  After the movie ended, this critic noted that directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West also helmed “RBG” (2018), the insightful doc about our country’s late justice. 

During a Sept. 30 Q&A at the Angelika Film Center & Café, Cohen discussed that she and West learned about Murray during their “RBG” work. 

“(Betsy and I) did a little Googling on Pauli Murray and (started) to read up and learn a bit more about the myriad of things that Pauli had done, leading us to be somewhat astounded that we didn’t know about this incredible figure,” Cohen said.

Murray was a pioneer of the highest order and truest definition.  According to Google, a pioneer means “a person who is among the first to explore or settle in an area” or “a person who begins or helps develop something new and prepares the way for others to follow.” 

Indeed, Pauli explored new areas in the legal world, and she paved the way for other landmark idols of American history.  In other words, Pauli was a pioneer for the pioneers. 

Vastly ahead of her time. 

If you are unfamiliar with Pauli Murray, it would be a disservice to list her staggering achievements in this review.  Watch the movie, but for the moment, know that she was a modern-day Renaissance woman who fought for the underrepresented, especially during earlier decades that one wouldn’t expect.

Think of it this way.  This documentary is like discovering that Neil Armstrong – in July 1969 – wasn’t the first person to walk on the Moon.  Instead, 20 years earlier, someone else flew into outer space and stepped on Madame Luna.  Granted, Murray wasn’t an astronaut, but you get the point. 

Cohen and West follow straight-up doc methods in revealing a crystal-clear picture of Murray’s life.  Except for the cinematic biography’s first 10 minutes, the movie generally follows a linear path, where we discover that Pauli grew up in humble beginnings in North Carolina.  When she was three, she moved to Durham to live with her aunts and grandparents (on her mother’s side). 

Her family had mixed-race backgrounds, but she identified (or was identified) as black.  Murray also challenged her gender identity, a taboo subject throughout most of the 20th century, but she did so silently, which caused her emotional anguish.

In most respects, however, Murray moved like a rocket ship, a one-woman force armed with a keen will to make progress.  For example, she sent repeated letters to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the University of North Carolina’s discriminatory admission standards, and she eventually got First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s attention. 

Murray called this practice “confrontation by typewriter.”

She was also a voracious reader, and the bio explains her embrace of education, which began at a tender young age and continued throughout her life, as she earned several degrees. 

To tell this extraordinary story, Cohen and West recruited experts like Rutgers University professor and author Brittney Cooper, University of Georgia professor and author Patricia Bell-Scott, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Pauli Murray (who thankfully documented her memoir via audiotape). 

Murray once said, “When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them.”

Well, make sure that you draw a big circle on “My Name is Pauli Murray” on Amazon Prime or your local movie theatre listing and devote 88 minutes to this film about this dedicated human being.

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Starring:  Pauli Murray (archive footage), Patricia Bell-Scott, Brittney Cooper, Chase Strangio, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Runtime: 88 minutes

Rated: PG-13

Image credits: Amazon Studios

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