Home Reviews Movies/TV Reviews ‘MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY’ Review | An Inspiring Story Clumsily Told

‘MY NAME IS PAULI MURRAY’ Review | An Inspiring Story Clumsily Told

The curvature of history is shaped by great individuals. A lot of the time, these people become world-renowned for generations after their deaths due to the influence they had on global events. Quite often though, a person can affect the status quo of society at large while going almost completely unnoticed. Lawyer and civil rights activist Pauli Murray is one of these figures and the subject of the new documentary film My Name is Pauli Murray, which comes to theatres on September 19 and Amazon Prime on October 1.

My Name is Pauli Murray functions as a biography of Murray’s highly fascinating and inspirational life story, starting with her childhood as an orphan in the 1910s, through the ecclesiastical role she took on when she became an Episcopal priest late in life. She would prove to have ideas ahead of her time and face struggles for which no terminology existed.

pauli murray

Growing up during the Great Depression, Murray was aware from a very young age of the prejudice she faced in America due to both her race and gender. Her awareness was refined into outrage during her undergraduate studies at Hunter College in New York City, which only accepted women at the time. This ideology led her to stage a protest by sitting in a whites-only section of a bus in Virginia in 1940, more than 15 years before Rosa Parks’ much more famously engaged in the same form of nonviolent resistance in Alabama. 

This passion for equal justice led Murray to pursue a career as a civil rights attorney, and she eventually attended law school at the prestigious, historically black college, Howard University. Murray was the only woman studying law at the school, and despite facing discrimination for this fact, she graduated at the top of her class. Her much more famous classmate, Thurgood Marshall, would go on to argue for the winning side of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case, implementing reasoning that came directly from Pauli Murray’s academic work at Howard.

pauli murray

In addition to her under-appreciated legal accomplishments, Pauli Murray has recently become an icon for the LGBTQ+ community as well. She had several romantic relationships with other women throughout her life. Letters she wrote to physicians reveal that she also grappled with her own gender identity, repeatedly requesting unsuccessfully to be injected with testosterone and seeking medical research to justify doing so decades before gender-affirming care would become accepted medical practice. In 2017, her biographer Kathryn Schulz retroactively classified her as transgender after having researched Murray for her book (I have chosen to use “she/her” for Murray because those are the pronouns that the film uses). 

My Name is Pauli Murray is an important film. It brings its subject out of historical obscurity, casting a long-overdue spotlight on her and her journey. Pauli Murray accomplished a lot and stood for many values that she would not live to see actualized. Her life is unique and spans a formative portion of American history, from World War I through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Her story is definitely deserving of the feature film treatment.

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That being said, My Name is Pauli Murray is quite stuffy and academic, as documentaries go. There’s really no narrative to speak of outside of Murray’s life story itself. The film simply goes through her life one step at a time, highlighting her various professional accolades and personal obstacles. Rather than closing with some high point or grand statement of value, it merely mentions the final events of her life and then the movie ends. Even a non-fiction film like this one can be greatly improved by skilled storytelling. This is something of a lost opportunity given how fascinating Pauli Murray’s life truly was.

This natural, albeit uninventive, progression through the movie is then jumbled up by a strange creative choice on the part of the filmmakers. Large portions of this documentary are composed of Pauli Murray’s words in her own voice in both video and audio recordings, which is a powerful and profound way of conveying her ideas. However, this is interspersed with instances of her words printed out across the screen with no accompaniment. This makes for a bit of an awkward viewing experience because it is necessary to frequently read large walls of abstract text and internalize them in time to be able to follow the next audio portion.

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Original archival footage of Murray and the historical events of her time has been beautifully remastered for this film. There is a video from the Great Depression of the 1930s that depicts young men piling onto freight trains in their quest for paying work that is so clean it looks almost modern. This gives the movie a sharp visual feel that is only broken up by the aforementioned on-screen paragraphs. 

All in all, My Name is Pauli Murray is an average moviegoing experience. There is an amazing story being told here that every American should know, but the way the information is delivered makes it come off more like a college lecture rather than a piece of entertainment. If you are a socially conscious person, particularly on the matter of civil rights for racial minorities and LGBTQ+ individuals, there is enough to be in sheer awe of to make the film worth seeing. Otherwise, I suggest skipping it and reading an article or book about Pauli Murray instead.

About My Name is Pauli Murray

Synopsis: A look at the life and ideas of Pauli Murray, a non-binary Black lawyer, activist and poet who influenced both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall.

Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

Writers: Talleah Bridges McMahon, Julie Cohen, Cinque Northern

Stars: Patricia Bell-Scott, Dolores Chandler, Pauli Murray

Rated: PG-13

Runtime: 1 Hour, 31 Minutes

Releases: September 17th, 2021

My name is Kevin and I have been writing about movies with GNN since January 2020. Some of my favorite films are Inception, Django Unchained, American Hustle, and Gladiator. I graduated with a B.A. in Philosophy from Arizona State University in May 2018. I am currently self-employed in e-commerce and live in Tempe, Arizona. In my free time, you can probably find me slinging spells in Magic: the Gathering or dusting off a retro video game console (Super Nintendo is my favorite).

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