Telling a true story onscreen, especially one of an ‘unsung hero’, can always be a difficult balancing act. You want to be honest and respectful to the facts, avoiding sensationalising a real life but at the same time, you want to keep it from being too dry and purely informational. But sometimes you get a story so fascinating that it just jumps out with no need for embellishments. My Name is Pauli Murray is definitely one of those stories.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is the latest documentary from RBG‘s Betsy West and Julie Cohen. It tells the story of Pauline ‘Pauli’ Murray, a lawyer, preacher, author and civil rights campaigner who was instrumental in the campaign for the 14th amendment to the US Constitution as well as being an inspiration for Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It also approaches the difficulties they faced as a non-binary individual who defined themselves as having an “inverted sexual instinct” in a time before much of the current terminology existed.
With such a packed life, you wouldn’t imagine that a scant 93 minutes would be able to do it justice, but you get the feeling West and Cohen aren’t seeking to cover everything about Pauli but instead are seeking to highlight that this is a figure who everyone should go away from seeing this and want to do more research into. Especially when Pauli left behind a volume of poetry, two autobiographical texts and two collections of legal writings, for those that are interested to explore further, the film provides just enough context to justify its existence as a film.
But ultimately, as interesting as the subject is, the film is hampered by a somewhat pedestrian approach to telling their story. While the use of talking heads mixed with archive footage and visualising Pauli’s words is by no means ineffective, it does render the story as a visual documentary a little underwhelming. Because ultimately film is a visual medium and this starts to feel like it might have worked just as well as a radio show or podcast. Putting it on film is understandable in terms of reaching the largest audience, but there are times when you wish there could be something of a larger flourish to really justify its cinematic presentation.
Considering all the people who owe their careers and ideas to Murray, it would be churlish of me to suggest in any way that a lack of flair invalidates this well-structured telling of her life briefly. As much as Murray was a revolutionary, to give her the respectful, if bland treatment seems still the wisest choice to make it accessible. Yes, it might not be the trailblazing work of genius she deserves, but it is the one that could get a necessary story out there in the broadest way possible. All things considered, it is difficult to fully say this is a successful work of documentary filmmaking but considering the subject, it is nothing less than essential viewing.
My Name Is Pauli Murray is available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video now