REVIEW: ‘My Name is Pauli Murray’ celebrates the life of a legal icon

This is a still from “My Name is Pauli Murray.” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Queer priest, lawyer, activist and author Pauli Murray is a revolutionary figure previously lost in history. Barely scratching the surface of their extraordinary life, the documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” gives an overview of Murray’s life from their train-hopping adolescence to graduating seminary school at the age of 65.

Inspiring figures like Justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Murray’s life work set the foundation for civil rights law, ending segregation and fighting for gender equality. They popularized the idea of Jane Crow, the now-accepted idea that Black women experience racism differently than Black men. They created the approach of arguing segregation laws as unconstitutional rather than trying to prove the inequality of the separate-but-equal legislation, a tactic that was continually failing.

Along with all of their professional achievements, the documentary highlighted Murray’s personal life and celebrated their queer identity to successfuly paint a full picture of who they were as an individual, not just as a professional lawyer. Murray wrestled with their gender identity for most of their life. They wrote to doctors asking for hormone injections to correct an imbalance and often presented themselves androgynously. The film also revealed lesser known details of Murray’s life, such as their long term relationship with Irene Barlow who Murray described as their “silent partner.” 

Murray’s queerness had to be hidden during their lifetime, but the documentary finally liberated the love that inspired them to keep fighting. The choice to include these personal details was critical to understanding Murray’s journey as a whole, and the visibility of successful, intersectional, historical figures is critical for the present day LGBTQ+ community.

Murray was before their time in almost every respect, but now that society has progressed, the documentary creates a true legacy that would certainly make them proud. 

Murray made strides toward gender equality as well, co-founding the National Organization for Women to protect women’s rights. The legal groundwork Murray helped establish along with their prolific writing later inspired Justice Ginsberg. Ginsberg spoke in the film, praising Murray’s dedication to equality and explaining how critical their work was to today’s civil rights law.

Condensing a revolutionary life into an hour and a half was not an easy task, but the film remained focused on the major achievements in Murray’s journey while also acknowledging all of the barriers they faced. Accurately explaining these complex societal issues in such a short period of time is also not an easy task, but the documentary worked because it always concentrated on telling the story through Murray’s perspective.

The filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen were no strangers to creating a film about the life of a powerful woman, as they were the team behind the 2018 documentary “RBG”. Consisting of mostly talking head interviews, the documentary adhered to a standard format similar to most PBS or History Channel documentaries. However, the lack of engaging visuals was made up for by the fact that every moment of Murray’s life was something unique and unprecedented, keeping viewers glued to the screen. 

One of the standout films at Sundance, the film served to fix the historical inaccuracy of overlooking Pauli Murray. A trailblazing feminist, a queer icon and a talented lawyer, Murray will finally be remembered as the pioneering figure they have always been.