My Name is Pauli Murray

Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen

Written by Talleah Bridges McMahon, Julie Cohen, Betsy West, Cinque Northern

If I mention the name Pauli Murray and you don’t immediately know who she was, don’t feel slighted. In fact, I had to look her up prior to watching the new documentary, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” which has a limited theatrical run for the next two weeks and then plays worldwide on Amazon Prime starting October 1st.

Pauli Murray was born in November 1910 in Baltimore, MD. She was an avid study of all subjects and in later life, she went on to become a lawyer, having experienced life in the Jim Crow South. She championed the rights of minorities to equal protection under the law and the same opportunities that others were able to have. She was the first African American woman in the US to become an Episcopal priest, and she was gender fluid before that word became part of the lexicon. More importantly, she fought for everyone’s rights as a lawyer, proving that an African American woman could achieve as much, if not more than her white, male counterparts.

They dismissed her at every opportunity, and yet, she persevered believing in a better society for African Americans, for women and ultimately for all. An orphan during her youth, she was raised by her maternal grandparents in North Carolina, her interests lay in writing and she eventually became a prominent author, constantly running in with the law for sitting in the whites-only section of a Virginia bus with a friend in 1940. She was the only woman in her Howard University law class and was denied entry into Harvard University because of her gender, ultimately attending UC Berkley where she became the first African American to receive her JD from Yale Law School, this based on a paper she had written years before which became a defense for women’s rights in front of the Supreme Court in 1950.

She became good friends with Elenore Roosevelt, which “My Name is Pauli Murray” goes into great detail about. They had a contentious relationship, but always remained cordial. Ruth Bader Ginsburg names Murray as a coauthor on a 1971 brief for her pioneering work on gender discrimination.

The focus in the documentary is broad in its scope, elevating Murray’s life and the importance of her work. Today, her life’s work is the subject of the LGBTQ movement which “My Name is Pauli Murray” devotes a great deal of time on and something for which she fought for years before the movement’s time. She was a quiet, determined, and driven individual, passionate about her causes for the benefit of all.

Forgive the history lesson as the basis for this critique of the film; Murray’s forward-thinking life came far before its maturation and serves as lessons we can all take hold of to bring societal enlightenment. And yet, her teachings, her books are not a part of history. In fact, I was talking with a friend prior to seeing the film, and they didn’t know who she was. I offered a brief glimpse of her life to my friend and they immediately said they needed to see this documentary.

The importance of “My Name is Pauli Murray” cannot be understated. There are parts of the documentary which run perhaps longer than they needed to, however, she is an important and, until now, an undiscovered part of our history, which is always changing.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” is now in a limited number of theaters and will be on Amazon Prime on October 1st. If you do anything this Fall, see this film.