There’s an obvious thread that led Betsy West and Julie Cohen to follow up “RBG,” their profile of Ruth Bader Ginsberg with a biography of Pauli Murray, a great influence on the Supreme Court Justice at a time when she was still arguing cases before them, but the less apparent one that reveals itself throughout “My Name is Pauli Murray” is quite poetic in a way surely the polymath who made time for creative writing alongside her legal papers could appreciate. Acknowledging upfront that you’re unlikely to have heard of such a major figure in American history, West and Cohen use every bit of capital and wisdom they earned from having a hit with the previous film to give Murray an equally rigorous and celebratory portrait as they did for Ginsberg, generously allowing moments in the sun for those few at the time that were encouraging and enabling of the success she had.
The fact that our collective history seems like one more door shut to Murray, a a nonbinary, light-skinned Black person who became a warrior against discrimination in all its forms, is sadly indicative of a world they could only change so much. But West and Cohen find that the legal scholar and poet trusted the future and could see it clearly in more ways than one, keeping immaculate records of their life when no one else could be trusted to, orally recording the autobiography “Song in a Weary Throat” before their death in 1985 and, through her grandniece Karen Rousse Ross, leaving behind immaculately preserved personal papers for the Schlesinger Library at Harvard to keep available for researchers – and as it happens, all the illustrative materials you need for a compelling film. With the question of historical preservation settled, the film poses a more intriguing one asking if anyone would think to look for these archives when Murray’s lack of belonging to any one particular culture made them less easy to embrace despite their brilliance, though as ACLU attorney Chase Strangio puts it so eloquently in the film, “The person experiencing discrimination always has the most insight into changing it.”
While Rutgers University Professor Brittany Cooper can be seen opening up her class on Murray by suggesting they were “so spectacular I can’t cover her in all her dopeness,” West and Cohen cover a truly impressive amount of ground, detailing how Murray’s Aunt Pauline, who took them in as a child after their parents died, encouraged them to be a free thinker with the only limitation being the dress they had to wear on Sundays for church, and how Murray’s experience of being Black and trans opened up a truly inspired perspective on legal matters and progressive activism that became the basis for truly groundbreaking work. Although Murray often couldn’t carry any of this out themselves, denied entry into any number of law schools or firms along the way because of their appearance, a clever recurring conceit in “My Name is Pauli Murray” is citing the years of important breakthroughs in Murray’s life in relation to when they were acted upon by others who based their own ideas on their thinking, whether it was Ginsberg seizing upon the 14th Amendment in Reed V. Reed as a way of eliminating sex discrimination or Thurgood Marshall’s successful argument against racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, predicated in part on a paper Murray about Plessy v. Ferguson.
As much as West and Cohen convey the history of a remarkable person, they illuminate the inevitability and endurance of powerful ideas when it’s not only the large-scale changes that Murray could see when no one else could, but the profound impact that those who allowed Murray to be themselves had on them, whether it was Aunt Pauline, whose insistence on going to Sunday service likely instilled a religious streak that led to Murray becoming the first Black woman to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church, or Irene Barlow, the office manager at a New York law firm who allowed them to flourish. It’s one thing for “My Name is Pauli Murray” to restore Murray to their rightful place in history, but West and Cohen do one better in showing how much strength Murray pulled from having any sense of acceptance and show it’s a fight for equality that they still have an impact on until this day and for years to come.