New documentary explores life of unannounced civil rights activist Pauli Murray
Pick any progressive litigation adopted in the United States over the past several decades, and there’s a good chance it was influenced by the work of Pauli Murray. Still, you probably don’t know his name. Murray was an activist, lawyer, poet, and the first African-American female episcopal priest. If a common thread runs through his many lives, it is because each was far ahead of its time. Years before Rosa Parks, Murray sat in the white section of a Virginia bus with a friend. When refused a postgraduate job at Harvard, she coined the term “Jane Crow” and continued to write. State laws on race and color in 1950. Before ideas about non-binary identities entered the common lexicon, Murray struggled with his gender identity, begging physicians to find a “cure” for what might be recognized today as a gender dysphoria.
As part of his fight for legitimacy in front of racist and sexist institutions, Murray has documented his life in great detail, and it is through this vast “conservation of receipts” that historians and activists have rediscovered it in recent years. . These records were invaluable to filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen when making My name is Pauli Murray, who seeks to reclaim Murray’s place in history. Hyperallergic caught up with the pair before the documentary was released.
H: What is the need to resuscitate Pauli Murray’s legacy in 2021?
Betsy West: It is the story of a person who has deeply influenced civil rights, the rights of women. Pauli was an amazing writer, a poet, someone of non-binary gender and who was never recognized [by the mainstream] for the contributions they have made to American society. When we learned about this amazing story, we wondered why we didn’t know this person. So we were like, let’s dig in and see if we can make a documentary.
Julie Cohen: He is a person who has fought battles for equality, often so ahead of his time, in a way that seems extraordinarily relevant to the struggles unfolding in our country today. It is such a privilege, a revelation and a joy to learn the story of Pauli. [They] has played a fundamental role in our history, yet this is not someone you read in the textbooks!
H: So how did you hear about Murray?
JC: From Ruth Bader Ginsburg! When we did RBG, while researching, we saw that Justice Ginsberg put Murray’s name as a co-author in the first brief she wrote for the Supreme Court, fighting for gender equality. She wanted to thank Pauli for coming up with the idea that a potential way to fight for women’s equality was to use the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The idea that RBG eventually developed and led to victory was one that Pauli had in the mid-1960s.
H: You have another documentary on Julia Child, Julia, which just premiered at TIFF. Do you plan to reclaim the place your protagonists deserve in history?
PB: There are so many stories of women who have been ignored, pushed aside, pushed aside. This is frankly the opportunity for filmmakers to find these stories and tell them. We are working on another story of a living woman who is also a pioneer. Unfortunately and fortunately, it is a fertile landscape.
JC: I think your word “recover” is a good one. In some cases, it’s about adding a richer understanding to someone we already know.
H: Was that true in Murray’s case?
JC: Maybe it even seemed like a bigger responsibility because he’s someone many Americans don’t even know. But you know what? Pauli Murray is not someone we discover. Academics, especially black women, have studied and written extensively on Pauli for years. But in terms of the mainstream, there hasn’t been enough. The documentary can be used as a popularizer of the story. It can reach a large number of people who can start to learn more about Pauli.
H: I can’t help but wonder how you, as white women, are you held accountable for focusing the life of a black person?
PB: First, we delved into the scholarship of Pauli Murray and the writings of Pauli. And it was extremely important for us to have a diverse team, because like you said, we can’t go so far to put ourselves in our shoes. We had our wonderful producer, who we’ve worked with before, Talleah Bridges McMahon, our editor Cinque Northern and others. We were a small, very diverse team working intensely on this story for a year and a half.
JC: The goal for all of us was to try to get as close as possible to Pauli’s story with Pauli’s words.
H: His archives must have been an invaluable resource.
JC: Sure. The project would not have been possible if Pauli had not had the foresight to save 141 boxes of papers. These were not only legal writings, but also diaries and personal journals. Over 800 beautiful photos, often intimate, of Pauli or taken by Pauli. There were over 40 hours of audio recordings. Someone would come and interview Pauli, and Pauli would pull out a tape recorder and duplicate it and record them. It was as if Pauli spoke to the future as eloquently as only Pauli could have.
PB: I liked what Cinque told us. The film isn’t just in Pauli’s own words; we also tried to do this as much as possible from Pauli’s point of view.
H: We really owe a lot to the black women who archive history like this. So many documentary filmmakers spend years in libraries chasing the smoke.
PB: What is particularly extraordinary is that Pauli’s young life was impoverished, a bit itinerant – moving from apartment to apartment while managing to keep all that material. In photographs from the 1930s, we see Pauli on the rails during the Depression. I find these photos extraordinary. Pauli also preserved the evidence of the struggle with their gender, so that people in the future could read and perhaps understand them better than Pauli’s contemporaries.
JC: Despite all the struggles, there was this strong sense of importance and knowing what to do and what to say. “My contemporaries may not understand, but someone in the future will, so I’m going to save everything.” Pauli arranged for all of this to go into the archives at Harvard.
H: You have this way of weaving the critiques of your protagonists. You did it with Murray, as well as RBG and Julia Child.
PB: People aren’t perfect, and I think part of our approach is to find humanity in our subjects. It happens sometimes out of humor, and sometimes from places where they may have stumbled in one way or another. I think that makes the story more realistic. Obviously we greatly admire Pauli Murray, but we were also happy to explore the areas in which Pauli and a younger generation fought. Pauli was teaching Brandeis and opposed some of the languages ââand methods of the Black Power movement. We found this surprising and interesting. This gives a certain complexity to the story.
H: You also complicate Pauli’s sexuality and the conversation around her. You are retroactively applying contemporary genre vocabulary to a time when the terms did not exist or were not widely used. Why do you do that?
JC: It was definitely a fight for us. When we started doing interviews, we found out that Pauli’s friends referred to Pauli (as Pauli had done in life) with his pronouns. We understood how problematic this is for today’s trans and non-binary community, for whom Pauli is an icon. We didn’t want to draw conclusions about whether Pauli was a trans or non-binary man. Honestly, there is no way to find out. It was supposed to be a conversation, so we interviewed Chase Strangio of the ACLU, who uses Pauli’s writings in their work. We spoke to Raquel Willis about Ms. Foundation and activist Dolores Chandler. We decided to have them discuss Pauli’s pronouns in the movie, because that’s something people are concerned about today. We still don’t know how to answer this question.
My name is Pauli Murray releases on Amazon Prime on October 1.
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