My Name is Pauli Murray

(4/5) Commendable and driven, the film gives a coherent look at the often-forgotten life of activist Pauli Murray without disclosing too much or leaving room for audiences to ask follow up questions.


Agustin Noguera Villegas

1/23/20221 min read

*For consistency, this review will use pronouns they/them when referring to Pauli Murray to “acknowledge their expansive gender experience” (Raquel Willis).

The powerhouse team of Julie Cohen and Betsy West delivered two exceptional documentaries in 2021. One is the Julia Child-inspired film, JULIA, and the other, MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY, takes a look at the forgotten chronicles and victories of Pauli Murray, a Black luminary, whose ideas and advocacy influenced a generation of trailblazers to fight for equality. A pioneer of social justice, Murray was a civil rights leader whose work as a poet, lawyer and priest influenced the works of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and laid the foundation to declare segregated seating unconstitutional, almost fifteen years before Rosa Parks was arrested.

With a runtime of 91 minutes, the film is brisk, sharp and thorough in its telling of Murray’s life, due in part to the subject matter’s writing prowess and rigorous documentation of their life. The documentary allows everyone in the project to express and explain how they see Pauli Murray and the space they have carved for themselves in the history of pioneers of both Civil Rights and Women’s Rights. By telling their story, however, it is clear to see that the filmmakers have incredible respect for Murray and urgency to letting audiences know that this historical figure must be given their flowers.

The film starts with a prerecorded audio introduction by Murray themselves, reading notes, letters, statements and questions into a tape recorder. From there, the film takes time to explore certain events that impacted Murray and pushed them to pursue a life of social justice. One of them includes the “Bus Incident of 1940.” In March 1940, while on a bus ride from New York to Durham, North Carolina, Murray and their friend Adelene McBean were arrested for failing to move to the back of the bus after crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. After contacting the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall and others would invite Murray to help craft litigation that would declare segregated seating unconstitutional. And although the case was lost, it would serve as a turning point in American History and Murray’s own life.

The film also documents their correspondence and relationship with Peggy Holmes, a hiking counselor, and Irene Barlow, a manager director at the first firm Murray began working at as a lawyer. Letters and poems written to each other disclose a close and loving romance – especially with Barlow, who is considered by Murray’s family as the love of their life. Other correspondence showcased include memos and questionnaires to Murray’s doctors over the years, discussing their gender identity. Letters to their doctor include the sentence, “one of nature’s experiments: a girl who should have been a boy;” petitions for appointments to start hormone therapy; and most sincerely, a request for doctors to undergo exploratory surgery to find if Murray had undescended testis.

The history of transgender and non-binary people has infamously been suppressed, ignored and destroyed. Although it is true that a century ago, the vocabulary to discuss topics of gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation was almost non-existent in the West compared to today, Pauli’s own records point to a truth of gender non-conformity. But unfortunately, much of this is not as thoroughly explored. The short run time does beg the question: would this have worked better as a documentary-miniseries? As it stands, the film is remarkable, but the opportunity to have reached other, intersecting topics, regarding Murray’s time in Africa and the exploration of gender expression in other countries and cultures, as well as Murray’s identity as a queer priest, is overlooked. 

As far as awards season goes, Murray won’t be nominated at the Oscars, after it failed to make the December shortlist. Coen and West have been shortlisted by multiple award circuits for their other film, Julia, which is a bit disappointing and telling of the industry that continues to move at a very slow pace when it comes to opening the doors for non-binary and transgender creators and stories. It certainly is a miracle that this film was lifted off the ground to begin with (and both West and Coen should be lauded for uplifting and bringing the story to the silver screen), but it would have made for a key and special moment had Murray been shortlisted or even nominated. However, as awards season goes, there is always the possibility that somebody in a screening of Murray, walked away, thinking, “why isn’t their story known? Someone should do a biopic.” 

It doesn’t have to be a biopic – it could be a prestige TV series, or another documentary, but someone is bound to walk out of this film wanting to tell Pauli Murray’s story for the future generation. It has happened before and will again. All that is asked is that it manages to be half as remarkable as My Name is Pauli Murray.

**My Name is Pauli Murray is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.