”RBG“ directors explore life of the pioneering civil rights attorney who rebelled against mid-century limitations placed on race and gender
“How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is just one that we never learn?” is a question posed at the top of “My Name Is Pauli Murray.” As the documentary progresses, that question becomes even more mind-boggling.
From today’s lens, it is truly inconceivable how a person like Pauli Murray, who contributed so much to our modern concepts of civil rights and gender equality, could remain such a hidden figure in history. But like a lot of those trailblazers, it’s not so much that Murray was unknown, as much as she and her contributions remained unheralded.
While delving deeply into the life and work of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “RBG” directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen were intrigued by the brilliant lawyer, with whom they were unfamiliar, whose work helped inform and clarify Ginsburg’s own. After completing “RBG,” they turned their efforts and attention to this other pioneer and found a woman ahead of her time in almost everything she did.
As if confidently anticipating that enough time would pass for others to catch up, Murray left a mountain of archival material to shape her narrative and a plethora of tapes with which to narrate her own story, not to mention more than ample paperwork to clarify wherever she stood on almost all matters related to race and gender. Most astounding and even more unexpected is the video footage of her, but the surprises do not end there: Murray, as it turns out, was also a LGBTQ trailblazer.
Had Murray lived today, she would almost certainly not identify as female. Photos of her as masculine-presenting found in her archives attest to this. There is even evidence that she, at one time, explored gender reassignment surgery. So, it is more than reasonable to assume, as some in the documentary do, that, if she lived today, she would identify as nonbinary, adopting the pronouns “they” and “theirs.” Bridled by the times, however, Murray was discreet in acknowledging her female lovers. In fact, she did not write extensively about her personal sexuality and gender challenges at all. In other matters reeking of discrimination and injustice, however, she roared.
Though born in Baltimore in 1910, she moved to Durham, North Carolina to live with her maternal grandparents and aunt following her mother’s unexpected death and father’s institutionalization when she was just three. Under the watchful eye of her Aunt Pauline, a schoolteacher, she flourished personally and intellectually. Her courage seemed boundless. In 1939, she made national headlines protesting her rejection on basis of race by the University of North Carolina.
As a Howard Law School student (and eventual valedictorian), Murray came face to face with sexism, coining the term “Jane Crow” to describe the unique battles she fought as a Black woman. These experiences very much informed her work as a civil rights attorney and legal scholar, prompting both Thurgood Marshall and Ginsburg to consult and rely on her strategies to achieve their monumental wins in racial and gender discrimination.
A portrait of a trailblazer across so many spectrums — including co-founder of the National Organization of Women, a professor fighting for tenure, a published poet, and the first Black woman to become an Episcopal priest — “My Name Is Pauli Murray” more than rests its case on Murray’s brilliance and important contributions. Those more steeped in the Black American experience historically, however, won’t fail to notice the doc’s lack of grounding in early civil-rights history. As a result, it presents Murray’s actions, such as challenging Jim Crow segregation by refusing to sit in the back of the bus over a decade before Rosa Parks would become iconic for similar actions, as an anomaly when there is a history of such challenges by many Black Americans, including Ida B. Wells.
The same is true of the sit-ins in which Murray participated in Washington, D.C. At times, “My Name Is Pauli Murray” seems to presume falsely that, because Murray was not the only person to do something, particularly in matters of race, it somehow makes her less amazing. Truth is, her greatest value lies not in being first, but in being successful in winning age-old battles.
Quibbles aside, however, most viewers will be in absolute awe of the incredible Pauli Murray, posing the same question presented in the beginning of the documentary to themselves: “How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is one that we never learn?”
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” opens in US theaters September 27 and on Prime Video October 1.
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