[Editor’s note: In this review, you will see “she/her” pronouns as well as “they/them.” For clarification, ‘My Name Is Pauli Murray’ features both pronouns used when talking about its subject. We hope to be as sensitive to this issue as possible so we can properly honor Pauli Murray and this documentary in our review.]
There are three different kinds of biographic documentaries. Some celebrate people we all love (like RBG); some investigate people we know a little about and offer a deeper understanding as a result (like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?); and others introduce us to someone we should know about, but who has been obscured by history for one reason or another. My Name Is Pauli Murray falls into the latter category, and yet, by the end of the film you’ll feel like you’ve only scratched the surface of this trailblazer who was a pioneer for the fight for gender and race equality in the United States, all while suffering their own personal battles with gender identity before such a thing was publicly recognized as something other than a condition to “cure.”
Pauli Murray was born in 1910 to parents of mixed race and was put into the care of maternal aunts at a young age, where Pauli was raised and identified as Black. Even at a young age, despite being assigned female at birth, Pauli preferred to wear boys’ clothing and even gave themselves masculine nicknames. Luckily, Pauli had an ally in their Aunt Pauline, who seemed to understand Pauli with no judgment. But as Pauli grew older, they wrote in their personal diaries about their struggles with gender identification. Specifically, Pauli asked why they always fell for hyper-feminine, heterosexual women, and even came close to striking up a relationship with a friend. Alas, the friend could not see Pauli as “the man” in their partnership and the relationship ended, sending Pauli into an emotional spiral.
The documentary — which was directed by RBG helmers Julie Cohen and Betsy West — covers all of this not to gossip, but to note that this was happening back in the 1920s and ’30s, at a time when it was hard enough to be Black in America, let alone queer. It should be noted that at this time, there was no official public designation for identifying as transgender. In light of this, Pauli didn’t fully understand their own emotions and feelings during this period in time. As documented in their diaries, Pauli went to numerous doctors and was open and honest about feeling like a boy trapped in a girl’s body.
Pauli kept their gender struggles private while publicly pushing for racial and gender progress. As the documentary recounts, Pauli was always ahead of the curve. Two examples of this: Pauli was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a bus 15 years before Rosa Parks and applied to attend Columbia University well before cisgender women were allowed (Pauli was denied admission because the university did not admit women). After graduating from Hunter College, Pauli applied to the University of North Carolina law school, where Pauli was once again denied admission – this time because of Pauli’s race.
At each roadblock, Pauli refused to back down. After being denied entrance at UNC, Pauli wrote delightfully stern letters to various officials, including President Roosevelt. And while President Roosevelt all but ignored Pauli’s letters, Eleanor Roosevelt caught wind of Pauli’s situation and responded, striking up a correspondence and friendship that would last years.
By 1941, Pauli was enrolled at Howard University law school and was part of the all-male class. Pauli coined the term “Jane Crow” to describe the situation in which Pauli was not allowed to speak or excel due to their race and gender they presented as. Pauli graduated first in the class, a position that traditionally led to a fellowship at Harvard. But Pauli was denied this fellowship again due to their assigned sex.
And again, Pauli pushed back. In 1950, Murray published work that argued for civil rights lawyers to challenge state segregation as unconstitutional directly vs. going after the “separate but equal” facilities, and Murray’s work served as the basis for Thurgood Marshall’s work at the NAACP and, as a result, helped win the Brown vs. Board of Education case that ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Yet again, Pauli was ahead of the curve. This continued over the years, extending to gender equality as Murray’s article arguing that the 14th Amendment covered equal protection to women directly inspired Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1971 Supreme Court case for Reed v. Reed. Ginsburg even added Murray as a co-author in recognition of their work.
Time and again throughout the documentary it becomes clear that Pauli Murray was there, integral to these massive civil rights legislations yet existing just off to the side of the public figures we all know today, like Marshall and Ginsburg. But that didn’t make Murray any less passionate nor vociferous, with one of Murray’s contemporaries noting in the documentary that “nobody was a feminist back then, except for Pauli.”
But of course there’s also a throughline of tragedy throughout the documentary. For Pauli to meet all the requirements necessary for college, only to be denied entry for presenting female while Pauli privately identified as male, must have been heartbreaking. Interviews with family members, colleagues, and friends reveal just how varied Pauli’s perception was. Some maintained Pauli was a lesbian, and many of those closest to Pauli still use “she/her” pronouns. But interviews with transgender activists working today refer to Pauli simply as “Pauli” or use “they/them” pronouns, underlining the gulf in understanding between the generations.
But it also provides a bit of hope, showing how far we’ve come. It’s tragic that Pauli lived a life of confusion and frustration, yet inspiring to see how much progress has been made in a relatively short amount of time – at least insofar as publicly acknowledging and respecting the transgender community, and allowing them to live open lives (although, of course, prejudice is still sadly prevalent). And to see how much Pauli accomplished throughout their life, how integral they were to landmark civil rights and gender equality legislation, and how – despite fighting their own private battles – Pauli never shied away from a fight for progress.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is endlessly fascinating and will leave you yearning to learn even more about them. The documentary does a fine job of providing an overview of Pauli’s life, but once it ends you can’t help but want to dig deeper. Pauli Murray seems like the kind of figure who’s long overdue to get their own biopic, to bring their accomplishments and legacy further into the public light. But for now, My Name Is Pauli Murray is a great and inspiring start.
For more of our Sundance 2021 reviews, check out the links below:
And it’s a positive reaction, natch.
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