Sundance 2021: Documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” Illuminates the Life of Visionary Feminist Lawyer

Five years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued her first gender equality case, Pauli Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to address the intersectional oppression affecting Black women.

This is one in a series of reviews from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, during which I focused on films directed by women; you can find my other Sundance 2021 reviews here.


Sundance 2021: Documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” Illuminates the Life of Visionary Feminist Lawyer
Still from My Name is Pauli Murray. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

It’s both a shame and somehow not surprising that feminist civil rights lawyer and activist Pauli Murray isn’t a household name. Or, as one of the interviewees in the documentary, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen (who also bought us the 2018 film RBG), chastises, “How can one person be so pivotal and yet their name is just one that we never learn?” 

Throughout their life, Murray was a lawyer, poet, feminist, activist and priest; they were also queer and Black, identifying as nonbinary/trans long before terms for their gender identity had come into common parlance.

Born in 1910 in Baltimore, Murray was raised primarily by their mother’s family in Durham, N.C. (their childhood home has been designated an historic site by the National Parks Service), where they struggled with segregated schools, constant awareness of the KKK, and the specter of the 50-60 lynchings per year that punctuated everyday life for Black Americans in the South. Murray’s sympathetic aunt, who supported Murray throughout their life, moved with Murray to New York City where they pursued a degree at Hunter College.

After graduating from college in the midst of the Great Depression, Murray became a rail rider, reveling in their ability to pass as a teenage boy in order to hop trains and eek out a living. After participating in a New Deal-sponsored women’s summer camp, Murray became interested in the labor movement.


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A later incident in 1940—during which Murray and a friend refused to move to the back of a segregated bus 15 years before the iconic Rosa Parks case—inspired Murray to pour their energy into desegregation efforts. While the judges in Murray’s case outmaneuvered the NAACP lawyers so the case couldn’t be used to challenge segregation laws on a broad scale, the experience convinced Murray to begin law school at Howard University a year later.

Despite graduating at the top of their class at Howard, which should have gained them a spot to continue their law degree at the prestigious Harvard program, Murray was denied entry due to their sex. Instead, they went to Berkeley and eventually started their own law firm.

Later, Murray joined a former classmates’ firm as one of only three women and the only Black lawyer. It was there Murray met their partner Irene Barrow; the two continued a relationship until Barrow’s death in 1973.

Sundance 2021: Documentary “My Name is Pauli Murray” Illuminates the Life of Visionary Feminist Lawyer
Still from My Name is Pauli Murray. (Courtesy of the Sundance Institute)

The documentary does admirable work not only recounting the facts of Murray’s life, but also of reminding viewers how many of Murray’s resistances to the discriminatory status quo occurred years or even decades before the landmark civil rights cases we know from history books (Rosa Parks, the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, etc.).

Ten years before Thurgood Marshall argued the unconstitutionality of “separate but equal,” Murray had attempted to propose that the ideology was specious on its face, only to be soundly dismissed by their colleagues. Five years before Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued her first gender equality case, Murray coined the term “Jane Crow” to address the intersectional oppression affecting Black women.

Perhaps in part because they were before their time in so many ways, Murray suffered from depression and regular nervous breakdowns. For much of their adult life, Murray sought out doctors who might be able to help with their sense of gender dysphoria, pleading with them to no avail. The documentary thoughtfully considers how scholars, family and historians have addressed or failed to addressed Murray’s gender identity, ultimately arguing that the complexities of Murray’s gender and racial heritage made them broadly critical of boundaries and distinctions in a way that likely bolstered their sense of justice as a feminist activism.  

Murray lived a rich and storied life before their death from pancreatic cancer in 1985. They taught law school in Ghana, received a Ph.D. from Yale at the age of 50, co-founded the National Organization for Women, taught at Brandeis, became an Episcopal priest, and wrote a memoir. Murray often engaged in “confrontation by typewriter,” and the film also explores their decades-long friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which developed after Murray wrote the then-first lady a series of letters about inequities in American culture.

My Name is Pauli Murray utilizes a dynamic mix of archival footage; recordings of Murray reading from their memoir; quotes and images from Murray’s legal cases, letters, and diaries; contemporary footage of scholars like Brittany Cooper teaching her students about Murray; and interviews with scholars, biographers and family members who speak to Murray’s enduring legacy. It’s a well-crafted, engaging documentary that’s both edifying and inspiring. May we all be able to say, as Murray does, that “I lived to see my lost causes found.”

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About

Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University and Contributing Editor, Scholar Writing Program for Ms.