Los Angeles Times

A name that should be known

Pauli Murray’s work advanced civil rights. A spare doc presents the undertold story.

- By Sarah-Tai Black

The newest documentar­y from “RBG” director duo Julie Cohen and Betsy West, “My Name Is Pauli Murray” follows with detail the life of Anne Pauline “Pauli” Murray. A queer and gendernonc­onforming Black poet, civil rights lawyer, priest and activist, Murray has a history of firsts — the first African American to graduate from Yale law with a doctorate, the first Black deputy attorney general of California, and the first Black woman ever to be ordained within the Episcopal Church. A peer of Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Friedan, Murray delivered radical work that reverberat­ed through not just generation­s but the milestone achievemen­ts of many other figures of her time.

“My Name Is Pauli Murray” recognizes the all-tooquiet history of Murray’s many firsts and places them in juxtaposit­ion with those more commonly recognized moments of political uprising. Before Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 there was Pauli Murray, defiantly sitting in the whitesonly section of a Virginia bus in 1940. Before the Woolworth lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro in 1960, there were Murray and peers from Howard University leading a direct action to forcefully desegregat­e the Little Palace Cafeteria in 1943.

What’s more, Murray’s pioneering legislativ­e work on gender discrimina­tion was the basis for the brief written by ACLU director Mel Wulf and Ruth Bader Ginsberg on behalf of Reed vs. Reed, the first major Supreme Court case to determine that discrimina­tion based on gender was unconstitu­tional.

While not delving into historical semantics, “My Name Is Pauli Murray” makes a case for refreshing our collective memory regarding whom we remember most vividly when we think of such social and cultural milestones. It asks us to look at history as a symbiotic and collective action rather than as a chronologi­cal checklist of individual achievemen­ts. Where it stumbles, however, is in its artistic execution.

Too often, Cohen and West’s film falls short of mirroring the energy and resilience of Murray herself. We are given a historical catalog of Murray’s life, which at times makes one question what would be the difference between learning this history here or through another medium. The research is there, certainly, but it is presented as if it were just that, without thought for the ways it could be presented in a more expressive form. There is a sense here that film is at most a communicat­ive tool to simply transmit this informatio­n, rather than a way to enliven and reactivate new ways of thinking about this galvanizin­g figure’s past and the resonance of their work in our present. This is a shame. Murray deserves nothing less than a history in full color.

 ?? LAWYER. Amazon Studios ?? Activist. Priest. Pauli Murray pioneered in a number of fields, a life recalled in a new documentar­y.
LAWYER. Amazon Studios Activist. Priest. Pauli Murray pioneered in a number of fields, a life recalled in a new documentar­y.

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