Julie Cohen | Telling the Storyteller’s Story
A Conversation with Director Julie Cohen about the new documentary My Name is Pauli Murray (Directed by Julie Cohen, Betsy West, 2021, PG-13, 1h 31m)
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, a full decade before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation, Pauli Murray was already knee-deep fighting for social justice. A pioneering attorney, activist, priest and dedicated memoirist, Murray shaped landmark litigation — and consciousness — around race and gender equity. As an African American youth raised in the segregated South — who was also wrestling with broader notions of gender identity — Pauli understood, intrinsically, what it was to exist beyond previously accepted categories and cultural norms. Both Pauli’s personal path and tireless advocacy foreshadowed some of the most politically consequential issues of our time. Told largely in Pauli’s own words, My Name is Pauli Murray is a candid recounting of that unique and extraordinary journey.
In advance of the September 17/21 theatrical release of My Name is Pauli Murray by the directors of RBG (2018) Bia had a conversation with documentary co-director Julie Cohen about making the film. The film stats streaming on Amazon on October 1/21.
Bia: Julie, before we start, I want to thank you for making this documentary. I want to thank you for lifting up the voice, the experience and the life of the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, her contributions and about what informed her life. This documentary is really about the context and history of human rights struggles in the United States.
One of the many things that moved me about the film was how Pauli wanted to tell her story the way she wanted to be told. She was clearly a storyteller. She documented her life fully. She wanted her story to be known. She wanted to be seen. Can you can share how you took on the challenge of telling the story of the storyteller?
Julie: It’s not really the filmmakers who are telling you this story. It’s really Pauli Murray, reaching out from the great beyond to tell us all the story of a remarkable life, a writer, a tenured professor, and the first black woman identified Episcopal priest. Someone who seems like they should have been a big historical figure that we all have heard of. And yet, so many of us didn’t hear about Pauli Murray in school, and as a result, Pauli understood that while it was happening. ‘Wait, I’m, I’m actually being left out of history in a way that’s problematic, and in a way that I would like to set a course towards fixing’. As a result, [she] put together the materials so that this incredible life story could be told later, by scholars, by authors and by filmmakers, by gathering this incredible archive of not only drafts of legal writings, but also very personal diaries and journals, incredible snap snapshots, self portraits and portraits, there were more than 800 photos in the Pauli Murray archive collection and dozens of hours of audio tape. Whenever someone wanted to interview Pauli in life, Pauli would double record that interview and save a cassette. So this all ends up at an archive at Harvard University, the Schlesinger Library. We felt that it’s not just that this is a story that’s crying out to be told. It’s like Pauli raising a voice and saying — tell my story. We wanted Pauli’s early efforts to get Pauli’s story told, to be part of our story. It’s all a little bit meta, but that’s why we started our film in the archives with Pauli’s grand niece Karen going through some of the folders that point the way.
Bia: What was it like to be in the archives with her great niece?
Julie: It was really, really magical. Pauli’s grand niece had followed instructions in a last Will and Testament to put all these materials at this archive or to arrange for them to be taken to the archive. But Karen hadn’t spent a whole lot of time in this archive. This was a great aunt that Karen was really close to in life, but, generations apart. Karen really didn’t know most of the Pauli Murray’s story and was really just starting to learn it. So the experience of looking over her shoulder, with cameras rolling, as she’s seeing some of these words saved and these old documents, and in one case, I remember her looking at a photo of a church that had some family connections, I don’t want to get too woo here, but it was kind of a spiritual experience. Karen brought her daughter, a young lady in her twenties to the shoot that day. Being in that library with Karen and her daughter and our team, at the heart of it all, down into the basement, as we showed, with boxes and boxes of Pauli’s archive, it felt kind of magic.
Bia: What was it like to work with so much archival material in terms of the documentary?
Julie: It was a bit overwhelming. It was helped by a number of things. It was helped by the fact that Harvard has very well cataloged the materials so that we were able to look up very specific things online. There was quite a bit of the archive that we were familiar with without having to physically be there. It was also helped by the scholars and writers who have come before us, our consulting producer Patricia Bell Scott worked for decades on a great book about Pauli Murray’s life focusing on the connection and unlikely friendship between Pauli and Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosalind Rosenberg who wrote a book called Jane Crow that really talks about some of Pauli’s issues as a gender nonconforming person. Both of these writers have spent years going through and finding some of the best material. Of course, we’re making a film, so we care more than they do about whether something is just written down or whether it’s on audio or videotape.
I do not claim that myself, or my directing partner, or Betsy, or our producer, none of us claim to have read through every piece of paper that’s in Pauli Murray’s archive, but I will tell you that we have looked at every single photo and we have listened to every minute of audio or videotape, which amounted to dozens of hours. If you put the audio and video together, [it was] maybe 50 to 60 hours and it wasn’t a chore. It was immersive, illuminating and delightful experience to be listening to.
[It was] Pauli’s very deliberate, very clear voice, reaching through history to tell a story that needs to be told.
Bia: I am interested in understanding pivotal relationships in Pauli’s life, some with very well known women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Eleanor Roosevelt. I can imagine that with so much archival information you had to leave some out. What do you wish that folks could explore more of, could learn more of, that you couldn’t include in the film.
Julie: It’s funny, when you make documentaries, people often ask what gets left out. While ordinarily I admit this is not my favorite question, in this film there is so much that we left out. Our film is a starting point. It’s just like sticking a toe into this incredibly vast and rich story. I’m not saying we regret leaving anything out because we’re trying to tell a fairly concise introduction, to bring you into this world.
We want to point people towards Pauli’s writing, which is just a spectacular. Song in a Weary Throat is Pauli’s autobiography, which Pauli read aloud to a visually impaired friend, which is why we have so much audio of it. We found that in a separate archive at a certain point. The book that we mentioned only briefly in the film is called Proud Shoes, which Pauli wrote in the fifties and which is a family memoir going through the history of black North Carolina during the civil war and during reconstruction, including family members who had been in the military and the amazing stories of black regimens during the civil war. It’s incredible stuff. It’s so personal, but it’s so broadly researched. We don’t really get into those stories very much in the film because that’s when you’re starting to get into territory where there isn’t any visual material to pull you through, but that whole book is maybe the best history book I ever read. And I’d recommend Dark Testament, Pauli Murray’s poetry and collection, as well.
Bia: I can’t wait to read it. Julie, I am interested in hearing about your creative partnership with Betsy West. In the last two documentaries, you focus on individual stories of fierce women. In my work, focusing on gender justice work, we talk a lot about stories.
I am curious about your choice to focus on individual stories to tell much broader stories, and to understand your creative partnership. How you did you meet and how do you develop these projects together.
Julie: Betsy and my documentary partnership is very much connected to the substance of these films we’re doing. We both come from the broadcast news world, so we actually knew each other through mutual friends for quite a while, but we really got to know each other about 12 years ago, [when I] worked on a project called the Makers Project, a fairly big and vast cataloguing of the modern women’s rights movement, involving telling the stories of hundreds of still living, at the time, women. It was for that project that Betsy initially interviewed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2011. A couple of years later, I interviewed RBG for another documentary I was doing about the Lower East Side smoked fish store, of all things, that RBG was a fan.
It was shortly after those two interviews that RBG broke through with the whole notorious R.B.G thing and became this unexpected internet rockstar for young women. Betsy and I realized that as interesting as her Supreme Court work was, there was a whole incredible history dating back to the seventies that most of RBG’s fans weren’t aware of at the time. We [decided that] we should make a documentary about this incredible woman and her great story. Normally it would be hard to get the funding to make a documentary about an octogenarian, tiny, little, soft-spoken Jewish lawyer. Everyone was treating her like a rock star, which was ironic and weird, and which is part of why Justice Ginsburg really embraced it. Because of that there was huge interest in her, and we thought we can sell this kind of historical documentary about the development of women’s rights law in the US Supreme Court.
Our partnership really came from substance and we dove into that project together and it went really well, and we really enjoyed working together. And as that was coming out into the world, we started looking for more projects, and projects came to us. In the case of Pauli Murray there’s a direct line. RBG is the one, as you see, because she’s in My Name is Pauli Murray. She’s the one who brought Pauli to our attention […] by putting Pauli’s name as a co-author on the first brief that RBG wrote to the Supreme Court in 1971.
It was Pauli who had actually developed the idea that the 14th Amendment could be used for gender equality, as well as racial equality. That led us to look into a Pauli a little bit more and think, this is such an incredible story, right up our alley. We both have told all kinds of stories over long careers, and are eager to only focus on stories that really deeply move us. And this was one.
Bia: It’s a beautiful story. You weave the history of the United States, and in specific moments in the film you can really feel this history — because of the way Pauli talks about it. For example, when she talks about growing up in the south as a black person ‘you were aware of the KKK in a very physical way, somatic way, you can feel it in your body.’ When she talks about moving to New York, she says, ‘ I could feel the educational gap.’ This sense of historical physicality is one of the beautiful things about this documentary.
Can you talk about your partnerships with Amazon and Participant Media for My Name is Pauli Murray. Documentaries are really difficult to get produced, to get it to theaters. How did these partnerships support the project? How do you keep yourself going in moments that may not seem like it’s going to be possible to keep going?
Julie: Our partnership with Participant Media was really huge for this. They were one of our distributors for RBG and they really jumped in quite early with the Pauli Murray project — a film that is clearly autobiographical and that many of our viewers are not going to be familiar with. It’s a leap of faith. Participant Media tends to take projects that I think are going to be important and worthwhile, and they jumped right in as did Drexler Films, which was obviously amazing.
[Documentary filmmaking] is a lot of work. Just when you think you’re done, there’s more to do. And that’s why it helps to have a great team, but also to feel deeply invested and absorbed into the substance of the project that you’re doing. We were going to make this work because from very early on me and Betsy and the film producers felt that it’s a little bit of a mission.
As we were learning more Pauli stories, we wanted people to know a lot more about Pauli Murray. We are in this fortunate position to help make that happen.
Bia: There are moments in the documentary that Pauli Murray’s sexuality and her expansive gender boundaries come up in wonderful way. They are integrated in the story, but not as part of her life. Can you talk about the decision to include the issues of sexuality, questioning of gender boundaries and how to include it.
Julie: [We had many] discussions and exploration on the issue of to what extent do we make Pauli’s attraction to women, but even more importantly, the love and deep partnership for 15 years with Renee Barlow, the love of Pauli’s life. How much do we include and make that part of the story and how much do we include Pauli’s quest to understand gender identity better, at times to present as a male, and at times to beg doctors for testosterone or surgery, that today would be called gender affirming surgery, but that in Pauli’s day didn’t have a name at all. How much do we make this part of the story when Pauli in her lifetime wasn’t making it part of the public story.
This is someone who was a public figure, who was giving speeches and writing writings and wrote an autobiography in which these issues aren’t overtly mentioned. Although I would suggest if someone goes and looks at the way that Pauli describes meeting Renee in the autobiography Song in a Weary Throat, which we include in the film, which uses the words like chemistry and sparks and lights, her eyes were so beautiful. I mean, it doesn’t take that long to understand that this is someone that probably she was madly in love with, even if there was some attempt to hide that.
We had two lines of thought, first is the point that writer Rosalyn Rosenberg makes in the film that Pauli’s questions about not fitting neatly into gender boundaries very much informed some of this legal and intellectual work about discrimination. Why do we put people into these arbitrary categories? It’s related to the substance of policy work. And the second, we’re working out of Pauli Murray’s archive which Pauli curated and collected and gave to Harvard. Although the information about Pauli’s communication with doctors and questions about gender and loves weren’t public, by the time Pauli died, those appeared to be deliberately included in the archive. This wasn’t information that we like dug out of the dumpster behind someone’s house.
This is information is in the collected archives, perhaps left with the hopes that once history is ready to deal with LGBT people, which again, I’m using some initials that wouldn’t have been used in Pauli’s lifetime, but maybe once history is ready, here’s the material to see this facet of my life that I had to hide. So, sadly, looking from modern times, that I had to hide when, when I was still alive.
Bia: The point in the documentary that you can feel that she was really ahead of her time is in this area. It was incredibly moving to think about some of the interviews with folks from the ACLU who were looking at gender justice and LGBTQ issues and describing how wonderful it was to have Pauli Murray to look to in the past, to bring solace to our current moment. That was very touching. I got a sense that Pauli was brought into her time. I had never heard of Pauli Murray and I am touched to know about her story and to understand the work that helped frame how we live in the United States today. It’s incredible.
The film is opening on October 17th, and then it’s going to be streaming on Amazon starting on October 1st. What you want to make sure folks take away from the film, if you have a call to action that you might have for folks.
Julie: One thing that we want people to take away is to sort of absorb and take in this extraordinary life and all its facets, hearing this story, hearing how much Pauli was able to accomplish in so many fields often against so many obstacles is mind blowing, and also really inspiring. It is incredible what a person can accomplish when they have Pauli’s determination and intellect.
The story itself is one thing, but there’s also a bigger issue that we’d like people to be thinking about, which is how do we look at American history? Certainly this is a time when we’re talking a lot about how are we educating kids about American history.
There certainly are some sectors of society that would prefer that we not talk about racial justice at all. There are some sectors that would be arguing we shouldn’t be talking about even the existence of gay, lesbian and trans people. Let’s just cut that right out of the history books. The Pauli Murray story is a really good example of what we lose when we’re not looking more deeply at our history. We should just take the history textbooks and add in, sort of glue in three pages about Pauli Murray. That’s really not the point. The point is we’re missing a lot of stuff. There are whole sectors of important developments that are not what we’re all learning in school.
And one thing is changing curriculums and that’s, that’s nice, but also for those of us who aren’t in school anymore, we need to maybe rethink. Our film includes not only this biographical information, but also a number of American episodes in 20th century history that really influenced Pauli greatly. Episodes that no one on our team was familiar with the 1943 Detroit riots in which throngs of white people, joined by law enforcement had beaten and killed a number, I think it was 17 was the number of black citizens in Detroit that were killed. It was part of a series of violent episodes that took place during the World War II era as a number of white Americans were outraged at the idea of black men in uniform, that it led to violence. It’s horrifying, but it’s the kind of thing we should understand, because if you don’t understand history, you’re condemned to repeat it.
We need to look more honestly and often painfully at where it’s happened in the past. Not only Pauli’s story, but many of the things that influenced Pauli’s thinking, seem like really useful correctives to the kind of wrongness with how we’ve been looking at history.
Bia: I do hope folks watch the documentary, and also go to the Pauli Murray Center in North Carolina, doing powerful work. And again, I want to thank you for a really beautiful film that is not only incredibly informative for all the things that you just described, but really moving.
I am curious if you want to share about your another project you just completed project and what’s else is coming up for you.
Julie: After My Name is Pauli Murray, Betsy and I made a film about Julia Child, being released later this fall, which is certainly a project we’re excited about. And beyond that we’re actually busy working on another film as well, but that one’s still top secret, but I can say it’s about a phenomenal, inspiring, gorgeously moving, living American woman.
For more on Julie
Julie Cohen has directed and produced nine feature documentaries, including The Sturgeon Queens (7th Art Releasing), which screened at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival and 60 others, winning 10 Audience Choice Awards; American Veteran (Freestyle Digital Media) which screened at 20 festivals, and won the 2017 Panavision Showcase Award for New York filmmakers; and I Live to Sing (WNET) which won the 2014 New York Emmy® Award for Best Arts Program, one of three New York Emmys® she has won since 2012.
Before starting her own production company Better Than Fiction, Cohen was a staff producer at NBC News for nine years, where she won the Individual Achievement Award for Best News Producer from American Women in Radio and Television (Gracie Award).