While making the Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG,” directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen came upon the incredible story of one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s greatest influences: civil and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray. Now, three years after “RBG” premiered at Sundance, they are back with “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” which tells of a life made for the big screen.
“After ‘RBG’ debuted, we did some research and went, ‘Whoa!'” West said during a Q&A in TheWrap’s Sundance Studio presented by NFP and National Geographic. “This woman is so much more…[someone] who influenced RBG and Thurgood Marshall and who, as an activist did so many groundbreaking things before anyone else.”
Cohen said that Murray was an “underrecognized figure in so many areas” — a Black, non-binary activist and civil rights worker, whose 1950 book “States’ Laws on Race and Color” was considered by Marshall and other activists to be a core document in the push against racial segregation. She was named a co-author in Ginsburg’s brief for her landmark Reed v. Reed victory at the Supreme Court that gave women more control over estates. She was also the first Black person to receive a doctorate from Yale Law School and the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
“How could you not tell this story?” Cohen said. “Obviously, there was the disadvantage that Pauli passed away back in 1985, but very fortunately and through Pauli’s forward-thinking, there’s a tremendous archive of Pauli’s written work and audiotapes and videotapes of Pauli speaking for the future, and that was a foundation for the film.”
It may seem strange that such an influential figure has been overshadowed by the legal icons she influenced, but Talleah Bridges McMahon, the documentary’s producer, thinks that Murray was so ahead of the curve that it, ironically, worked against her personal legacy.
“Pauli was working on these big issues before anyone really paid attention to them,” Bridges McMahon said. “And by the time there were these big movements, Pauli had already moved on to the next thing. So Pauli was working independently ahead of everyone.”
TheWrap’s Sundance Virtual Studio is sponsored by NFP and National Geographic.
Watch more of the interview with the makers of “My Name Is Pauli Murray” in the clip above.