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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

My Name Is Pauli Murray

by director Betsy West, director Julie Cohen, and producer Talleah Bridges McMahon

One of the joys of filmmaking is to find a story that is both unknown and thrilling. That is certainly how we felt when we learned about the subject of our film, Pauli Murray.

Pauli came to our attention while we were making the film RBG. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg credited Pauli with formulating the legal reasoning that Ginsburg used as a litigator in the 1970s fighting for—and winning—landmark women’s rights cases.

We thought, “Wow, who is this person?” We soon discovered that Pauli was at the forefront of so many movements including feminism, civil rights and labor activism, and had overcome so many obstacles as a Black, gender non-conforming person.

And yet, Pauli’s story and trailblazing ideas have been drastically underrepresented in text books and in the popular media. We were simultaneously energized and intimidated. Energized by the prospect of making the first documentary telling the story of this important American life. Intimidated because Pauli died in 1985 and had not received the kind of news coverage in life that usually provides a base of material for an historical documentary.

Fortunately for us, Pauli had a remarkable certainty of their place in history—even if others did not—and meticulously maintained an archive of notes, medical records, correspondence, diaries, poetry and prose donated to Harvard’s Schlesinger Library. The 140 boxes in the Pauli Murray archive—from Pauli’s bold letters to Eleanor Roosevelt to agonizing medical records from Bellevue Hospital—allowed us to tell Pauli’s story in their own words.

We also delved into 40 hours of audio interviews Pauli conducted later in life and—in two exhilarating discoveries for our team—a never before-digitized 45-minute video interview and a previously unknown audio recording of Pauli’s autobiography, both of which we found in separate archives. You’ll hear some of the most touching, thoughtful and funny moments from these tapes in the film. And you’ll get to see Pauli’s beloved Labrador, Roy.

In life, Pauli was known to be intensely private, but beyond professional correspondence and scholarship, Pauli deliberately included diaries and letters in the archive that revealed intimate struggles, and allowed us to illustrate how Pauli’s personal life contributed to their breakthrough insights about the arbitrariness of gender and racial boundaries. For years, Pauli struggled to get recognition by doctors as being a man, not a woman. The archive also revealed a passionate, later-in-life love story: Pauli’s longtime, romantic partnership with Renee Barlow.

Although we think Pauli’s work and story were always timely, the re-energized national conversation around systemic racism, feminism and LGBTQ+ rights affirmed our urgency in creating My Name Is Pauli Murray. Before there was critical race theory or “intersectionality,” Pauli was arguing the existence of Jane Crow—the compounding realities of racism and gender discrimination. This idea, along with Pauli’s renaissance as a beacon for the LGBTQ+ community, pushed us to reconsider known historical events, and reminded us to question why certain people are remembered in history while others are not.

Posted September 14, 2021

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