My Name Is Pauli Murray Review: A Forgotten American Icon Reearthed

My Name Is Pauli Murray Review: A Forgotten American Icon Reearthed

Read Time:4 Minutes, 57 Seconds

I want to see America be itself.

Pauli Murray

We all know the name Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and other civil rights heroes from the 1960s. Most documentaries will often cover these people, the events that surrounded them, or other social issues of the time. However, My Name Is Pauli Murray‘s titular subject is not a name I’d heard before, nor was many of the social issues covered in this documentary At least, not in the 1960s.

Peg seemed utterly without racial prejudice. She read some of my poetry and then said to me, “How can you write with such compassion?”

Pauli Murray

For the many of you who haven’t heard of Pauli Murray before, she was an American civil rights activist and a lawyer, women’s rights activist, Episcopal priest, author, and one of the first recorded transgender and bisexual icons – at least to my knowledge.

The bus driver said he wasn’t going to move until I got up.

Pauli Murray

I imagine that when prospective viewers come across this description on Amazon Prime Video, there’s some natural hesitancy to click play. Many viewers will say things like, “wow, they’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t they?” However, if that comes up in your brain, try to use suspension of disbelief and try to take in the information the documentary is trying to tell you. It might change your mind about any social issues Murray went up against in her time, but it might give you valuable insight into her mindset.

Click the YouTube play button to watch the trailer.

Directors Betsy West & Julie Coen paint a picture (sometimes, quite literally with paintings) that tells Murray’s life almost as a biography. Murray herself narrates much of the documentary over archival footage. When she’s not narrating, modern-day interviews are conducted with people she’s either helped or impacted, like Chase Strangio (a UCLA lawyer who appeared in last year’s documentary, The Fight). The mix of these two types of testimony to the impact of Murray’s life creates this intertwining narrative between past and present, showing just how much of an impact Murray continues to have long after her passing.

Alongside this level of portrait, in Jongnic Bontemp‘s score, there’s this mix between piano & synth that is lovely to hear that seems to feature primarily alongside some strings (maybe a violin or cello?) that allows the viewer the space to think about the things Murray is saying. To anyone familiar with my past reviews knows that this is the best thing a documentary can do. I don’t need a grand, sweeping score to understand the concepts at play in a documentary. Instead, less is more.

That also applies to the documentary’s storytelling – which I wasn’t a fan of. Covering Murray’s entire life, it’s simply too much for one documentary to cover. It’s hard enough to cover someone’s entire life in 90ish minutes, but when you add in Murray’s stances on women’s rights, religion, civil rights, her struggles with her sexual & gender identity, as well as her writing, the pacing is analogous to going from driving a bicycle to piloting a spacecraft. There’s just so much to cover here that I couldn’t help but wonder if this documentary wouldn’t be better served as a docuseries. The portraits of each year could be easily edited into hour-long episodes Amazon could release every week, which gives Murray’s story the appropriate time to shine.

Normally, I would account this to the influence of watching docuseries such as Naomi Osaka, Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson, and Obama: In Pursuit of A More Perfect Union within mere days, but the more that time has passed since those viewings, my opinion still holds. I’d much rather watch thirteen hours of Murray’s story and feel like I was taking in the entirety of Murray’s life story and understand it than to have Murray’s life story rush past me and not have the time to digest what Murray is saying before I’m whisked away to the next year of Murray’s life.

Going back to those sections where Murray’s life is broken up into neat, year-by-year segments, I think it’s a massive achievement by editor Cinque Northern that, even if the pacing is relentless, I never wanted to turn the documentary off.

If you’re reading this and are worried about any deepfake of Murray’s voice like in Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, don’t worry. It’s 100% Murray speaking each and everything she says in the documentary, as the team at Participant Media sourced this from tapes Murray recorded herself.

For those wondering why I haven’t talked about any of Murray’s ideologies – there’s a good reason for that. First of all, if you’re coming to a white guy who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in the South for his ideas about any of the topics discussed here, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’d much rather you read a review of this documentary from someone who has more than a passing knowledge of these social issues. Much of what the documentary said about gender identity, Murray’s sexual preferences, and civil rights, I am just now starting to grasp by osmosis through friends of mine who are starting to speak up about the injustices they’ve experienced in their lives. Second, I don’t feel comfortable even taking a crack and breaking down what Murray discusses in the documentary due to the pacing.

All in all, My Name is Pauli Murray is a very rare documentary. Normally, we hear about the greats, but directors Julia Cohen & Betsy West make the unknown known in this well-crafted but confusing-to-follow documentary.

You can catch my reviews of other documentaries I caught at AFI Docs 2021 below.

AFI Docs 2021 Reviews

My Name is Pauli Murray is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Until next time!

Thanks to Thomas Stoneham-Judge from Movies For ReelShane Conto, Joseph Davis, David Walters, and Ambula Bula for supporting Austin B Media on Patreon!

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