“My Name Is Pauli Murray,” the plainly pedagogical documentary by the filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen, hinges on the audience not knowing who Murray was: an activist, writer, attorney and priest. The easier to wow us with the onslaught of information, which rightfully situates Murray — a Black, gender nonconforming intellectual who died in 1985 — as a thinker ahead of the times.
As the first African American student to receive a doctorate from Yale Law School, Murray was a civil rights trailblazer, and an early architect of the idea that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should guarantee not just racial but gender equality. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the film’s many talking heads, explicitly cites Murray in one of her related Supreme Court opinions. Also touted is Murray’s refusal to sit at the back of the bus 15 years before Rosa Parks captured national attention by doing the same.
Indeed, Murray’s story is a remarkable — and extensive — one that the filmmakers stuff into an hour and a half that feels like a dull and disorganized PowerPoint lecture.
Murray was also a prolific writer who left behind troves of letters, diaries, poems and manuscripts detailing personal struggles with institutional rejection on the basis of gender or race (or often both) as well as romantic relationships with women. West and Cohen attempt to humanize their subject via these documents, but the effect feels cheesy and hollow, in no small part because of the overabundance of material. Along with audio recordings of Murray, the sound of a clacking typewriter is prominent and Murray’s cursive handwriting often floats across the screen.
In “My Name is Pauli,” the filmmakers touch on more compelling themes than in their Ginsburg hagiography, “RBG,” by singling out a figure whose life and work reminds us that more complex and fluid understandings of race and gender are not strictly modern phenomena. But the result feels an awful lot like an illustrated textbook.
My Name Is Pauli Murray
Rated PG-13. 20th-century cruelty. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes. In theaters.