Fifteen years before civil rights activist Rosa Parks helped instigate the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for example, Murray was arrested for sitting in the Whites-only section of a bus in Petersburg, Va. Although the action didn’t get as much press as later efforts, it spurred Murray to pursue a legal career, during which she anticipated the Brown v. Board of Education decision, her scholarship forming the foundation of Thurgood Marshall’s pivotal argument 10 years later. “My Name is Pauli Murray” delivers a lively, revelatory litany of all the things Murray got right first, in a career that was driven by equal parts intellectual curiosity and call to service. As Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers University associate professor explains to her class in the film, “I can’t begin to cover all her accomplishments and all her dopeness.”
Murray, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Durham, N.C., also was gay and gender nonconforming. Although she had a meaningful decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow in adulthood, the most painful passages of “My Name is Pauli Murray” recount her struggles with homophobia and an androgynous identity that today is widely understood as being something other than cisgender. (Some of the sources in “My Name is Pauli Murray” insist on referring to Murray as they/them to honor a figure they consider a trans pioneer.)
Although it’s easy to lionize Murray, who died in 1985, for her activism and acute political mind, it’s her language and writing — her “confrontation by typewriter” — that prove most shatteringly on point in “My Name is Pauli Murray.” At every turn, it seems, she brings an original and precise lens to everything from discrimination (she brilliantly conceives of Jim Crow-era segregation as performances for the benefit of White spectators) to the foundational values that animated her extraordinary life and career. “America, be what you proclaim yourself to be,” she exhorts early in the film. We’re still trying.
PG-13. At area theaters; available Oct. 1 on Amazon. Contains disturbing/violent images and mature thematic elements. 91 minutes.