Betsy West and Julie Cohen first learned about activist Pauli Murray from the subject of their previous documentary. “We first learned about Pauli from Ruth Bader Ginsburg when we were making ‘RBG.’ Ginsburg credited Pauli with coming up with the foundational strategy to win equal rights for women,” West tells Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). In doing their subsequent research on Murray, the pair saw how much Murray had contributed including having influence on Thurgood Marshall and refusing to move to the back of the bus years before Rosa Parks did so. “We discovered the incredible breadth of this person’s life: A person who had such a profound impact on our society, but has not yet been significantly recognized by.”
“My Name is Pauli Murray,” which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, shines a light on the pioneering figure who was an activist, a civil rights lawyer, poet, author and an Episcopal priest. Among other achievements, Murray helped come up with the legal strategy of having Plessy v. Ferguson ruled unconstitutional, which would later be accomplished in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954. West and Cohen’s previous film, “RBG,” about Justice Ginsburg, received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature and won an Emmy for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
Cohen found that she was most struck by the struggles Murray dealt with in regards to her gender identity. “Pauli, as early as 1940, was writing to doctors saying while I appear to be a woman I’m actually a man. Could somebody do exploratory surgery on me? Could I get testosterone treatment? All of these questions that science decades later would come to understand.” The responses she received from medical professionals left Cohen heartbroken. “Pauli was boldly approaching doctors, making these requests, getting back these painfully dismissive responses and reading that now in the light of history was really an emotional experience and was really sad.”
West believes that because Murray was nonbinary, it guided her thinking to be so ahead of her time. “Even though this wasn’t publicly known, I think it had such a profound impact on Pauli’s thinking and understanding that the things we take for granted, sort of arbitrary boundaries, gender, race are just that. They’re arbitrary.” She connects this directly to her taking on lawyers who thought they could achieve equality while still allowing the doctrine of “separate but equal.” “Pauli was saying, wait a minute, that’s crazy. If they’re separate can’t be equal by its very nature. It’s demeaning.”
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