New Delhi, Sep 16 (PTI) Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the makers behind the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary, hope people across the world get to know more about Pauli Murray, the trailblazing African-American activist-writer who fought racism and gender inequality.
The duo's latest documentary "My Name is Pauli Murray" tells the story of African-American activist (1910-1985) who helped shape the landmark litigation around race and gender equality, years before the civil rights or women’s movements picked up steam in the US.
Murray's work as a lawyer and writer on these issues had helped civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall legally fight against segregation.
"Pauli Murray was an African-American activist, lawyer, someone who had a profound impact on America's civil rights and women's movements.
"And yet a lot of Americans don't know who Pauli Murray is. There are complex reasons for that. It could be sexism and racism and also the fact that history doesn't always recognise the most important and influential people," West told PTI in an interview.
Cohen said they were also unaware about Murray's life and work until they worked on "RBG", the Oscar-nominated documentary about jurist and feminist icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She had credited Murray's work as the inspiration for her 1971 brief in Reed vs Reed, which ruled that women could not be excluded as administrators of a personal estates based on their gender.
Ginsburg, who died in September 2020, had put Murray's name on the cover of her first brief before the Supreme Court to recognise her groundbreaking legal essays. When they started their research, Cohen and West realised that Murray had an extraordinary life story.
"This was a difficult story to tell because it was so multifaceted. There are so many elements to Pauli's life.
"Her activism and legal work and political work branches into so many different levels in civil rights, women's rights, in the labor movement, in poetry and in academics. So finding the storyline was always a challenge," Cohen said.
But their job was made a little bit easier when they stumbled upon a treasure trove of Murray's writings, audio interviews, poems and legal briefs at the Schlesinger Library of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"Pauli made sure that her descendants took all those boxes to Harvard and that allowed us to get access. So through that material, we were able to tell Pauli's story," West said.
With the access to her personal stuff, the filmmakers were also able to know more about Murray's personal struggle with gender identity.
Murray was raised in the Jim Crow South by her namesake aunt Pauline, who lovingly referred to her as "my boy/girl". Many scholars have retroactively classified her as transgender.
"Pauli's diaries revealed some of the personal struggles. There were letters to doctors, saying, 'Hey, I really believe that I'm a man. Can you help me? Perhaps there are hormones I could get.' These were private issues that Pauli never wrote about publicly.
"So we're going on in the 1930s and the 1940s when there really was no language for what Pauli was experiencing," Cohen added.
Talleah Bridges McMahon, who has produced the documentary, believes it was important to tell Murray's story to the present generation, especially because systemic racism continues to plague America.
"Pauli Murray's story is incredibly timely. And unfortunately so, Pauli decades ago was pushing for the idea of Black Lives Matter.
"It is just disappointing to see that we're at a stage where the people are still having to put that idea forward but this is a time where it seems like more people are listening. And so we are optimistic that by telling Pauli's story, we can help keep that conversation going," she added.
West said that through Murray's writing they came to know about many incidents of crimes against African-American people that happened in the last century.
"We're looking back at history. Not only Pauli's unrecognised stories, but also events in history that we completely forgot about. One of them was a riot that happened in Detroit in 1943, in which young white men and policemen joined in beating up African-Americans.
"Pauli wrote an extraordinary poem about this event, but to us, it was a revelation. I had not really heard about this happening in Detroit. So I think that it's Pauli's story and many other stories about the history of systemic racism and violence that Pauli's story brings out," she added.
Now after tackling the lives of Ginsburg and Murray, the common takeaway for Cohen and West was about optimism.
"I think there are many life lessons to be taken both from RBG and from Pauli Murray. Perhaps a lesson that's really stuck with me is one similar characteristic of these two incredible American historical figures' relentless unstoppable optimism, even in the face of obstacles and barriers.
"Particularly true with Pauli. Almost anything that came at Pauli in life that would have stopped most ordinary mortal, Pauli just wanted to face down, confront, climb over and push right through. What an extraordinary way to live life," Cohen said.
"My Name Is Pauli Murray" will be released on Amazon Prime Video on October 1.