Sundance 2021: “My Name Is Pauli Murray” Shines Brightest When Pauli Murray Takes the Lead

For the first time ever, Autostraddle is at Sundance (at least virtually)! Drew Gregory is coming to you daily for the next week with all the LGBTQ+ movies and panels you’ve always wished you had access to from one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Today, she’s giving the hot seat over to our Interm Editor-in-Chief Carmen Phillips to discuss My Name Is Pauli Murray, a documentary about the Black queer trans icon.  Follow Drew Gregory on Twitter for more our Sundance coverage.


If you’d never heard of Pauli Murray and I told you their life story, you wouldn’t believe it.

It’s pretty myth making: Having survived their 20s stealing away on freight cars during the Great Depression and joining early labor movements, Murray was arrested for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in 1940 — 15 years before the activist demonstration of Rosa Parks began the Montgomery Bus Boycott (in Murray’s words, the labor movement helped them “relate this whole concept of freedom and dignity to being a Negro in America”). In part due to those early experiences, Murray went on to study law at Howard University and while there in 1944, they developed the legal theory that’s later argued in front of the Supreme Court by Thurgood Marshall to win Brown vs. the Board of Education (it was Murray’s senior thesis, no big deal). In 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Murray with developing the precedent of applying the 14th Amendment to gender discrimination, a cornerstone of Ginsburg’s argument in the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed vs. Reed, legally codifying gender equality (Ginsburg cited Murray in her brief of the case, the two were colleagues at the ACLU).

Think about it — the same one singular queer Black trans person so willingly gave of their talents, and therefore left footprints on the social movements and quite simply historic (and even that’s an understatement!) legal cases that changed the course of… well, everything.

And yet, we — and by “we” I largely mean non-Black, non-queer, non-trans people, and the systems and institutions built around us — rarely, if honestly ever, give Murray the proper recognition and overwhelming gratitude that they have long been overdue.

In Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s documentary My Name Is Pauli Murray, premiering this week at Sundance, Dolores Chandler, the former coordinator of the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice said it plainly and best: “We’ve been taught to believe that people like us don’t exist. So, when I came to know and learn about Pauli Murray, I was so amazed and wanted to hold it so tightly. And also, I was angry. I was angry that I felt in some ways that I had been robbed of my history.”

Which is why I desperately wanted to love Cohen and West’s (both of RBG fame) work on this film. It’s Black History Month and the Sundance premiere of a documentary about a Black queer trans elder who long ago earned their rightful place center stage, but instead was relegated — like so many of our Black queer and trans ancestors were — to the shadows of history. Because they didn’t a mold, they were told to make themselves smaller. And so they did — they fought and gave all they had and then they stood back and let the cis, straight people, who went on to become the icons of the time, have the mic. They did that so that we, their Black queer trans children, could run this next leg of the race in the shade of a tree they used their seeds to root. It was sacrifice, service. Because there is no Martin Luther King without Bayard Rustin. There is no Thurgood Marshall, no RBG without Pauli Murray. This weekend should have been a crowning. It should have been a reckoning. Instead, I found that My Name Is Pauli Murray left me wanting.

Not the least of which because Murray is consistently misgendered throughout the film. I empathize with the difficulty and delicate line of correctly naming or describing the gender of someone who lived in time periods far removed from the language of our own, especially when that person still has living loved ones who perhaps have a different preference. However, I believe that misgendering a trans person is an act of violence. In this case, given the length of time (nearly a quarter of the movie by my watch! If not more!) dedicated to discussing in significant detail the ways that Murray understood their own masculinity and how that effected their mental health, their love life, and the far extent that Murray went to find language to describe their gender to doctors all the way back in the 1940s — along with an already years long, active discussion among trans historians and activists asking those of us who uplift Murray to do so reflecting their expansive, and clear gender identity (it’s my generous assumption that the production of this film predates some of these ongoing conversations) —  it was particularly hurtful and stupefying that the filmmakers continued to use feminine pronouns throughout.

Ahead of the film’s premiere lawyer and activist Chase Strangio, who is featured in the documentary multiple times, wrote online: “I hope everyone gets to learn about Pauli Murray — one of my heroes. I also think it is wrong to refer to Pauli with she/her pronouns. I hope we move away from that. We owe Pauli the respect to hold the capaciousness of Pauli’s experiences in the world.” Writer and activist Raquel Willis expresses a similar sentiment within the film, “Being Black and queer myself, I refer to Pauli as ‘they’ or simply ‘Pauli,’ to acknowledge their expansive gender experience.” With so many trans people, both on camera in My Name Is Pauli Murray and off, sharing their desires and wishes for Murray so clearly — it’s not hard to imagine how the film’s pronoun choices might isolate, if not harm, trans audience members who press play hoping to learn more about the icon.

I also found My Name Is Pauli Murray to be rich in detail, but lacking in spark. RBG is a documentary not without its controversies, but Cohen and West’s reverence for Ginsburg was palpable throughout. It invoked awe from behind the lens. Comparatively, My Name Is Pauli Murray felt somehow distant. The difference between writing a love letter and writing an (appropriately award winning) thesis statement.

I’m thankful that Julie Cohen and Betsy West leveraged their own privilege and the success of their previous documentary to finally have Murray’s story told. I’m almost certain that without them, a film like this would have an infinitely harder uphill battle to receive Sundance bonafides (if it even found funding to be made at all). And by choosing to center both Murray’s own voice via recorded audio and video, along with on screen written applications of some of their most famous poetry and legal doctrine, there are some true moments of intimacy that are stunning.

Pauli Murray was unspeakably brilliant, and their intelligence looms large, but they were so warm. Their kindness, vulnerability, yes even their depression and certainly that megawatt handsome smile is best captured on their own terms, and with over 141 boxes of writings, 800 photographs, and dozens of tapes — My Name Is Pauli Murray absolutely shines brightest when it lets Murray take the reigns.

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Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 361 articles for us.

9 Comments

  1. I’ve been enamored with Pauli Murray since I happened across a copy of The First Lady and the Firebrand, but I think this is the first I’ve read about their trans identity. It’s too bad the documentary is lacking in reverence and respect for their pronouns. But I’m excited to see it for more of Pauli Murray’s voice. And it reminded me that I’ve had Song in a Weary Throat just sitting on a shelf unread for months. Time to rectify that.

  2. I think the film could have addressed that we don’t know what pronouns Pauli would have used if given the language we have today. It’s a complicated issue and I think Cohen and West approached it with care – how do we properly use pronouns for Murray when they didn’t have access to modern terminology and explicitly identified as a woman later in life? I choose to use they/them our of respect for the choices that Murray did not have. I’m not sure we can label it as misgendering if we don’t know the pronouns they would have used. Scholars and activists are split about this. Perhaps a slightly longer discussion of unknown pronouns would have been helpful. I try to not use pronouns as much as possible when talking about Murray, and I think that’s what the filmmakers should have done (and what they did in the film for the most part apart from interview subjects).

    I also noted the difference in warmth between RBG and this film. Cohen and West had much less to work with, both in that their subject is deceased and most colleagues and family of the subject are as well. Not only that, film didn’t exist for much of Murray’s life. So these two factors limited their access.

    • Yes, thanks Laura. I agree, we don’t know what pronouns Pauli Murray would have used, and to me using “they” feels like another case of making that choice for Pauli Murray.

      Sensing I will get pushback here, but to me, it makes sense to continue using the ones Murray *did* use. We do know of people from that time who changed their pronouns–so we know it was possible, if difficult–and to my knowledge, Murray isn’t one of them.

      So using what we know, while acknowledging Murray’s struggle, makes sense to me.

      My bias here is as someone with many of the same gender issues as Murray, who has chosen to continue using “she.” If I were a top legal mind and people made my documentary 50 years later (which, of course, not happening), people might think they should use “they” for me, and that wouldn’t feel right even if it matches the available evidence.

  3. I was so thrilled to see that this documentary was made! I have been fascinated by Pauli Murray since I learned about her while mourning RBG. I devoured The Firebrand and the First Lady & Jane Crow, then was able to locate Song in a Weary Throat as well. They have helped make the pandemic isolation a tiny bit more tolerable. Any effort to get Pauli Murray some long-overdue recognition for her/their contributions gets my support. I can’t wait to watch this film.

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