No doubt it’s a sign of the times, but the beginning of “My Name Is Pauli Murray” has the feel of a cordial Zoom visit, albeit one in scratchy black and white. As Pauli Murray smiles into the camera in a closeup, she stage whispers to her black Lab to lie down, then she tells him again and another time after that. Instead, he pokes his muzzle into the frame. Murray’s smile widens into the warm, toothy expanse she was known for. The moment creates a personable foundation between the viewer and one of the titans of human rights. One too few know. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary should go a long way in remedying that.
There have been books about Murray: Patricia Bell-Scott’s “First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice” and Rosalind Rosenberg’s “Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray.” Both authors appear in the film (Bell-Scott was a consultant). And in 2017, Yale U. opened a residential college named for Murray. Murray pushed hard against boundary after boundary — as a Black child in segregated North Carolina, as a woman at Howard Law School, as a young person navigating the chop of gender identity before that was a phrase.
Intricately crafted without being flashy, the Sundance-launched documentary trusts that its subject can hold her own. Murray does far more than that. Although she died in 1985 at the age of 74, the human rights activist, lawyer, poet, professor and first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest owns this journey.
The directors and editor Cinque Northern make deft use of the archive. Thanks to a cache of audio-taped interviews — as well as photos and correspondence — she acts in many ways as the narrator of her saga. Quotes from poems and letters appear on screen: “Hope is a stalk / Between clenched fingers … Hope is a song in a weary throat,” she wrote. That line informed the title of her memoir; “Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage,” which was published posthumously.
The film’s use of the clackety-clack of a typewriter conveys Murray’s writerly diligence and perhaps her sense of urgency, too. A dogged letter writer, Murray and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt became friends after she penned more than one pointed missive to FDR for not upholding his liberal values when it came to the nation’s Black citizens. A stellar student, Murray had been refused entry into U. of North Carolina on the basis of race. On a visit the president has praised the school.
By pointing out the gap in years between Murray’s actions and landmark events, the directors make a purposeful, persuasive argument about Murray’s place in the nation’s Civil Rights history. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat, Murray and her good friend Adelene McBean were jailed for refusing to budge on a bus in Richmond, Va. Nearly 20 years before the lunch-counter sit-ins, Murray headed protests that desegregated restaurants in Washington, D.C. Directors West and Cohen (whose “RBG” was nominated for a best doc Oscar in 2019) were introduced to Murray by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Five years before Ginsburg argued her gender equality case before the Supreme Court, Murray was leveraging the 14th Amendment on behalf of women.
Her personal correspondence and musings speak directly — and at times painfully — to the struggle for LGBTQ people and the growing understanding of gender non-conformity. From a young age, Murray was not comfortable with being female and there were periods in her life when the questions roiled. Her aunt Pauline, among the maternal family who raised her when her mother died, called Murray “my little boy-girl.” Correspondence between Murray and doctors reveals how profoundly troubled she was. But there was also a long-term romantic partnership with Irene Barlow and the film makes delicate use of that love story.
There were approximately 141 boxes of material — journals, documents, photos — at her home when Murray called her grand-niece and executor, Karen Ross Rouse, to let her know she was nearing the end. The trove formed the Pauli Murray Archive at Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. How does that much material become a taut, engaging documentary? Very thoughtfully.
“My Name Is Pauli Murray” is ample but never overstuffed. The interviewees include engaging academics Tina Lu (head of the Yale residential college) and Brittany Cooper, whose classes at Rutgers reflect the diversity Murray advocated. Arguably the sweetest interview takes place with former Brandeis students Ernst Myers and Reggie Sapp weighing in thoughtfully and lovingly on the prickly, generational tensions between their beloved professor’s view of social change (she insisted on using “Negro”) and Black student activism on campus.
What is it they say about the honor of prophets? Not only are they snubbed by their own place, but they are so often lost to time as well. The documentary unites Murray with a potent moment — ours to be sure, but also, finally, hers.