“I want to see what America be what she says she is in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America, be what you proclaim yourself to be!” The film opens up to a poignant quote by human rights pioneer, Pauli Murray (1910-1985).
When directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen were in production on their documentary “RBG,” about the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, they noticed that Ginsburg had put Pauli Murray’s name on the cover of her first women’s rights brief as a young litigator before the Supreme Court. “A law journal article Pauli had written in 1965 was one of RBG’s inspirations for using the 14th Amendment as a tool to fight for gender equality.” says Cohen. The name, Pauli Murray, wasn’t boldface familiar. “Pauli’s journey foreshadowed many of the issues we face today,” West added.
The documentary uncovers astonishingly unknown, or lesser known, facts regarding Pauli Murray’s accomplishments and contributions to the pursuit of gender and racial equality. The archival footage, letters, diary entries, and notes reveal Murray’s internal struggle with race, gender and gender identification and just how confusing it was. “My whole personal history has been a struggle to meet standards of excellence in a society which has been dominated by the ideas that Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and women were inherently inferior to men,” Murray explains in one of the clips.
Murray had the nerve to confront discrimination at a time when there was great risk in doing so. “Pauli Murray was not just an amazing lawyer or a bad-ass feminist but also a queer and non-binary person.” Raquel Willis, Ms. Foundation for Women.
The film uncovers Murray’s documents memorializing a bus incident in Virginia in 1941 during which Murray refused to move to the back of the bus which was subject to segregation laws. The one open seat in the “colored section” was broken. Murray and others were arrested, jailed and forced to sleep on mattresses infested with bed bugs. Murray reached out to the NAACP, who agreed to undertake overturning the Virginia statute requiring segregation on busses. The judge dismissed the case citing Murray was “disturbing the peace.”
The documentary depicts, through footage of Murray, the psychological effects of growing up in North Carolina in the early 1900s and experiencing the treatment that was vastly different from the White children. It also details the prejudice from the White and Black communities based on her family’s complexion. Murray’s ancestry was African-American, Irish and Cherokee. “The point at which life became unbearable was in the contact with the White world,” Murray explains. The film reflects on the constant derogatory slurs used routinely toward Black adults and that incidents of lynching were not reported in the media; the awareness of the Ku Klux Klan was always present.
The film aptly presents diary notes and letters in respectfully animated scenes portraying Murray’s feelings about the racial hostility that existed. The music composition beautifully and masterfully enhances the emotional message of inspiration. “Pauli’s ability to push through even when the world was not affirming” producer, Talleah Bridges McMahon described how that was especially moving.
During the Sundance Q&A session, West, Cohen and Bridges McMahon revealed especially significant pieces of information about Murray that were not included in the film due to time constraints. For instance, Murray was instrumental in the inclusion of “sex” (gender), not just race, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Additionally, Murray was the first Black deputy attorney general in the State of California.
This documentary is not only a compelling and moving film but a relevant composition necessary to better understanding an important piece of civil rights history.