My Name Is Pauli Murray provides a fascinating introduction to the visionary activist and author, poet and priest, of whom most have probably never heard.
Fresh from the success of their Oscar-nominated film RGB, which charted the life of Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West turn their lens on another legal firebrand. Born Anna Paulina Murray in 1910, Murray was at the forefront of civil and gender rights campaigns that would eventually lead to seismic legal and constitutional change. Their latest offering draws a detailed outline of a hitherto unmapped figure.
My Name Is… takes us on a whistle-stop tour of Murray’s many firsts; in 1944 she graduated first in her law degree class at Howard University, became California’s first black deputy attorney general, the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale law school in 1965, and in 1977 became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, Murray was arrested in Virginia along with her friend for refusing to move to the back of the bus. In the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education, Murray’s law school paper written 10 years previously, helped form Thurgood Marshall’s cornerstone argument to successfully establish racial segregation in public schools as unconstitutional. But her contribution to the landmark decision went largely uncredited. The film goes on to highlight how Murray’s work was later used by Bader Ginsburg in the Supreme Court battle to assert the 14th Amendment of the Constitution which offered protection on the basis of sex as well as race. Murray’s legal arguments were ahead of their time, but as we hear in her own voice, she reconciled her place in history; “I live to see my lost causes found”.
Cohen and West judiciously mix archive footage, insights from Murray’s colleagues, friends and family to fully render her personal and professional life, together with extensive use of Murray’s writings and audio recordings to reveal her inner struggles. Making an appearance is Professor Rosalind Rosenberg, author of the biography, Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray. Through Rosenberg, the documentary introduces the difficulties Murray experienced due to her sexuality and gender identity. This examination provides My Name Is… with a deeper and darker counterpoint to the exploration of her extraordinary career achievements.
Although born with the outer appearance of a female, Murray from an early age was convinced she was born a man. Adopting a masculine style of dress, Pauli often passed as a teenage boy, and she dropped the name Anna for the less defining moniker Pauli. We hear how in the early 1940s, Murray desperately sought to obtain hormone treatments and described her gender as an ‘in-betweenness. The film suggests that Murray could be viewed as an early transgender figure in US history, who in today’s parlance may have preferred to use the pronouns they, their, them. It seems that as in all aspects of Murray’s life, society had yet to catch up with her way of thinking.
Considering the immeasurable impact Murray had on racial, gender and identity politics it’s incredible that her story is not widely known both in and outside of the US. One hopes that the release of the illuminating My Name Is… will finally bring Murray’s life and story the attention it deserves.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is available in Cinemas and at home on Amazon Prime Video