Julie Cohen and Betsy West on Giving Voice to a Civil Rights Icon in “My Name is Pauli Murray”

In order to do justice to a subject who transcended so many barriers, Betsy West and Julie Cohen sought out the services of the animator Diana Ejaita to help them create interstitial title cards for “My Name is Pauli Murray,” realizing that in order to celebrate achievements that continue to live on, they shouldn’t be consecrated in only the formats of the past such as fuzzy film and photographs.

“We were just trying to look for ways to really highlight the ahead-of-timeness of many of the things that Pauli did and thought that could be both intellectual and visual theme [because] there’s so much to this complex, multifaceted life that we were trying to think of some things that would draw it all together,” said Julie Cohen. “And Diana created artworks, all of them based on actual images that then turn into a piece of art.”

It was about as fitting a tribute as one could give Murray, both a brilliant legal mind and a gifted poet, as someone who could find the art in all aspects of life and whose many interests increased their capacity to approach them all differently than most. An inspiration to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who West and Cohen previously profiled to great acclaim with “RBG,” Murray pioneered the line of thought that Ginsberg embraced as a lawyer that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause could be applied to issues of discrimination when it came to gender as much as race and that Plessy vs. Ferguson, used by Thurgood Marshall to undo segregation in schools, could be used to argue a number of civil rights cases. Murray understood far earlier than most that such social constructs were largely arbitrary, brought up as a Black woman but knew from an early age that they didn’t entirely align with either gender.

Rather than having identity become a limitation, Murray’s considerable mind opened up to thinking about injustices that were happening across America in ways that might require some time for the rest of the country to catch up, but planted the seeds for reframing conversations around equal rights for all as they became an educator at Yale and eventually ordained as an Episocopal priest. An extraordinary person apart from their myriad achievements, West and Cohen are able to answer the question that opens their film when it seems like so few are unaware of Murray’s contributions to the greater good so vividly that they’re unlikely to slip under the radar again, with “My Name is Pauli Murray” coming alive in letting its subject’s words reverberate across the film, echoing how they’ve cut across generations and continue to leave a mark in the present day. After premiering earlier this year at Sundance, the film is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Cohen and West, who are having quite the fall with iconic portraits of both Murray and Julia Child, spoke about how they built upon the work they did in “RBG” to chronicle this equally remarkable trailblazer, bringing their voice quite literally into the film and why the time is ripe to tell their story.

I’m so happy that you decided that this was going to be the follow up to “RBG.” After knowing how important Pauli was to her, did you feel an obligation there or was it a natural extension of this story?

Betsy West: I think we felt grateful to RBG for opening our eyes to Pauli Murray. RBG put Pauli’s name on the cover of the first legal brief that she wrote arguing for women’s equality, really as a nod to the radical thinking that Pauli did in the 1960s about using the Fourteenth Amendment to broaden the opportunities for women, as well as for African-Americans, so we were thrilled when we did more research and discovered, “Oh my goodness, this person not only did this for women’s rights, but had such a profound impact on so many aspects of our lives.”

Given the archive you had, there were so many ways you could’ve told this story. Was there something that you could hold on to from early on?

Julie Cohen: All along we just wanted to take pieces of the story that we felt most deeply and that we could connect to one another. We realized pretty early on we weren’t going to be able to tell Pauli Murray’s whole story. We were really just trying to start the process of unearthing this spectacular figure from American history and were hugely helped in that endeavor, interestingly, by Pauli Murray, who had the foresight to save an enormous collection — 141 boxes worth of notes, journals, drafts of papers, photographs, audio cassettes, and even videotapes — that really tell Pauli’s story in Pauli’s own words. It was important to all of us who worked on this film to make this as close to an autobiographical project as we could, so we focused on things that Pauli spoke about either publicly, or in some cases only privately, but all saved in that archive to weave together this extraordinary story.

It was interesting to hear that the Schlesinger archive had the bulk of it, but I understand both the audio of the autobiography and the letters were found elsewhere. How large a net did you want to cast?

Betsy West: It was our great archive research team. In fact, Amira Williams, our intern who we had met at Pauli Murray College had eagerly said, “I want to work for you guys this summer,” and was on a search for photographs. We had seen a credit for a photograph in a National Parks archive and she called that place up, asking about the picture, and then said, “Do you have anything else about Pauli Murray?” [They told her] “We have some kind of a statue of her hand” — that was not that interesting, “but then in a drawer there’s some cassettes.” It turned out that Pauli Murray had read a good portion of the autobiography that they were writing for the friend whose archive was housed at this National Park Service library, so we said, “We’d love to see that.” Then when we heard Paulie’s voice reading the story of the childhood in the Jim Crow South and all their experiences growing up, and then applying to graduate school and being told “No, you’re African American, you can’t come,” in their own words, that was pretty thrilling.

Was there a piece of archive that you came across that changed your entire ideas of what this could be, or took you in a new direction?

Julie Cohen: It was really each piece of archival, especially as far as the audio and video is concerned. Each new piece that we found and listened to, as well as Pauli having a beautiful voice [beyond] the way that you talk about a writer’s voice, had a literal beautiful voice [with a] very strong, emotional, clear-headed, yet emotional way to express things, really felt revelatory. When we found that black-and-white videotape of Pauli as an Episcopal priest, a piece of footage that actually was on VHS and had never been digitized until we looked at it, just seeing the jubilant smile on Pauli’s face, and the loving yet stern way that Pauli was interacting with the labrador Roy, it felt like it gave us an opportunity to show this person as a human being, not just as a visionary thinker.

You’re always finding ways to bring history into the present day, as you do here by not only interviewing Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper, but also attending her classes. How did that come about?

Betsy West: Pauli is part of the conversation in a lot of universities now. We actually went to an event at the Schomburg Library in Harlem about Pauli Murray to hear our consultant, Patricia Bell-Scott, the author of a wonderful book about Pauli [“The Firebrand and the First Lady”], and she was interviewed by Brittney Cooper, who blew us away with her knowledge and her deep understanding of Pauli’s role in history. Afterward, we talked to her and discovered that she teaches a whole section about Pauli at her class at Rutgers, so we were very eager to film that. Everybody we interviewed for the film, even if they didn’t know Pauli, had a deep connection to Pauli, as Brittney did — Pauli’s great niece, the students at Brandeis — that was also important to us to try to flesh out who this person was. It was just discovery after discovery of interviews, and we didn’t want talking head experts, but people who really had an understanding [of Pauli] such as Dolores Chandler, also as a African American, non-binary person, who had so profoundly felt Pauli’s pain, had recognized it and understood it. That was a very important interview for us.

Was the role of Pauli’s poetry always so important to this?

Betsy West: Yeah, the poetry grew in importance in the film after our editor Cinque Northern put together the beautiful sync sequence, using that home to the oppressors, that you see toward the beginning of the movie, crush us with the leaves and the trees behind, which then leads into the Yale student seminar. When we put that together, [we thought], “Wow, that’s so powerful.” The poetry gave us an opportunity to take a breath in the film at various places and really consider the import of what we had just learned because you can race through this life —so many things happen. We left chapters out of the life actually, but you needed some time to really absorb the impact and the poetry, that to us was so evocative, allowed us to do that. Plus, we had the benefit of an interview that Pauli had done on a public radio show…

Julie Cohen: Yeah, one of those stuffy, old public radio programs that I actually wish still existed. Every week they would invite a poet, and for 30 minutes that poet just reads their best poetry under the host direction of deciding what poems they’re going to read. That gave us a lot of audio of Pauli’s poetry and our core team that worked on the film — the two of us, as well as producer Talleah Bridges McMahon, and editor Cinque Northern, — there were things that we responded to differently and things we responded to kind of the same, and I feel like we were just all really into the poetry. I remember a situation where we were looking for a transition and Betsy’s literally on her cell phone, looking for two lines that would connect one chapter of the story to the next, and it worked. [laughs]

Betsy West: Yeah, I had “Dark Testament” on the iPhone and on the Kindle and I’m just going through and finding a poem that really related to that chapter in Pauli’s life. [laughs]

Like Pauli, you seemed to anticipate the moment it would be coming out in. What’s it like starting to get it out there?

Julie Cohen: Pauli’s story resonated with us from the first time we heard about it, and it grew to resonate more last year, particularly during the bursting forth of the Black Lives Matter movement, and we just hope that people, from all different walks of life, connect with the story and really take the opportunity to feel the sense of revelation that we felt in learning Pauli Murray’s story.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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