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'My Name Is Pauli Murray': Legal icon takes center stage in Sundance film

In their latest film, directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen of "RBG" fame turn their attention to a civil rights trailblazer who was one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's key influences.
A still from "My Name Is Pauli Murray" by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.
A still from "My Name Is Pauli Murray" by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.Pauli Murray Foundation / Sundance Institute

As filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen were creating "RBG," their wildly popular, Oscar-nominated documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, they encountered a far more unsung social justice trailblazer who also was a strong inspiration for Ginsburg: Pauli Murray.

Murray, born in Baltimore in 1910, was orphaned at a young age and raised by maternal relatives in Durham, North Carolina, before forging a singular path to become a successful activist, poet, lawyer and memoirist and earner of many a far-flung distinction, among them becoming California's first Black deputy attorney general and the Episcopal Church's first Black female priest. Murray's brilliant writings about civil rights legislation were decades ahead of their time: Justice Thurgood Marshall referred to Murray's 1950 book "States' Laws on Race and Color" as "the Bible for civil rights lawyers."

Not incongruously, Murray's personal life and identity were complex: Murray was a multiracial person who identified as Black and a gender-nonconforming person who, likely because of contemporary social constructs, usually identified as female. As Rosalind Rosenberg, Murray's biographer, points out in West and Cohen's excellent new documentary, "My Name Is Pauli Murray," it's difficult to grasp Murray's foresight without understanding that it was this sense of in-betweenness that made Murray increasingly critical of all boundaries.

NBC News talked to West and Cohen about what drew them to Murray and the making of their documentary about Murray's life, which hadits world premiere Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival.

NBC Out: Why did you feel so compelled to tell Murray's story?

Betsy West: While making "RBG," we learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a lawyer had put the name Pauli Murray on the front page of the first women's rights brief that she wrote, to acknowledge that Pauli had come up with a legal theory in the 1960s about how to win equality for women. So we thought, "Wow, who is this person?" We did more research, and we were just blown away by Pauli's story. We just felt people needed to know more.

NBC Out: Compared to "RBG," how much more difficult was it to make a documentary about someone who passed away 3½ decades ago?

Julie Cohen: The short answer is that it was a lot more difficult — not only because there wasn't a living, breathing person that can be followed around with the camera, but also because we were telling the story of someone who was not going to be already partly familiar to most of our audience. Very fortunately for us, and quite intentionally on Pauli Murray's part, this whole project was possible because Pauli throughout life had had the foresight and enough of a sense of Pauli's place — not so much even in history, but of Pauli's place in the future — to realize that every piece of writing, every audio interview, poems, legal briefs, should all be saved for posterity at Schlesinger Library, the women's history library at Harvard. Those allowed us to create a story that's told largely in Pauli's own words.

NBC Out: How hard was it to find the storyline for such a complex person who lived on the cusp of so many worlds?

West: Pauli was ahead of the time in so many areas, like in protesting for racial justice by refusing to sit at the back of the bus 15 years before Rosa Parks and by becoming a feminist at Howard Law School because of the way the professors were denigrating her. So Pauli's story does have a throughline of constantly meeting challenges and then finding really creative and courageous ways to go up against them — sometimes successfully and sometimes not — but ultimately winning and having a major influence in both civil rights and women's rights. So that was the trajectory that we were following in Pauli's professional life. Obviously, personally, Pauli had a very complex story as, really, a nonbinary person in a time where there was no language, where you couldn't really discuss it. And yet we have the diaries in which Pauli's writing about the feelings of being a man, letters to doctors saying, "Can you please help me, give me hormones?" That's another complexity which we think actually informed Pauli's thinking about arbitrary distinctions. Why should women be consigned to do one thing and men another? Similarly, racial discrimination. These categories just made no sense to someone like Pauli.

NBC Out: Murray's writings have inspired many key Supreme Court arguments over the years. Do you think Murray's writings will continue to inspire more major civil rights advances in the future?

Cohen: In fact, we know that they have and they will because Chase Strangio, who [worked on] the huge LGBT workplace discrimination case that has been before the Supreme Court in the past couple of years, made the point that he based some of his thinking on Pauli's work. Pauli's lawyer-thinking was just decades ahead. I think that you might find if you look back at the history of geniuses, often what makes a genius a genius is that they are thinking of stuff a long time before it occurs to other people.

NBC Out: What do you think Murray would think of becoming a queer icon?

West: Wow, that's a hard question to speculate on. I can imagine that it would be an enormous relief to Pauli to live in a world where you could express these feelings and not be denigrated or punished or outcast. I can't imagine that Pauli wouldn't be happy to live in such a world, and I think Pauli would also appreciate being a role model. Pauli was a teacher, a writer, wanted to educate people, so I think Pauli would appreciate that.

NBC Out: Have you thought about whether Murray might have come out as a lesbian or transgender had Murray lived longer? Or do you think Murray would be annoyed that we were even speculating about it?

Cohen: You know, it's really, really hard to say. Pauli was never out in any way in life — either as having women lovers or as being trans or nonbinary depending on how one wants to interpret, but certainly being gender-nonconforming — those were not part of Pauli's public persona. And yet, obviously, these movements have evolved so enormously in the past 35 years since Pauli's death. And in Pauli's archives are left behind materials for later generations to see and to understand things that in Pauli's lifetime were a struggle that was unspoken. Now you can just read letters that Pauli was writing to doctors and kind of know that. So that feels like a breadcrumb trail, that Pauli foresaw maybe that there would be a time for such issues to be discussed openly. But who knows? I mean, it's one of many reasons I think we can dream of how amazing it would have been to have even just, like, an hour with Pauli in the present to get Pauli's current thinking on so many things in the world.

NBC Out: What do you think Murray would be most proud of out of all the progress Murray inspired?

West: There are so many: contributions to Brown v. Board [of Education], contributions to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's work. But actually, I think proud of writing the books. As she said in one interview, "I'm a poet-turned-lawyer, not a lawyer-turned-poet." That was foundational to her. I think that meant a lot.

Cohen: In a videotaped interview that we have, Pauli talked about a deep desire to have "Proud Shoes," her family memoir written in the 1950s, reissued as a paperback, which at the time the publisher was just not buying. It subsequently has been reissued as a paperback. So has Pauli's autobiography. So has"Dark Testament," Pauli's book of poetry. So I bet having those very recent reissues, all of them more than 30 years post-mortem, would be something Pauli may have been quite psyched about.

NBC Out: As you show in the film, Murray was notorious for writing scathing "hot letters" to important people. Who would Murray probably be writing hot letters to right now?

Cohen: You can quote us that "I don't think Pauli would have wasted her time with Donald Trump."

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