Pauli Murray at University of North Carolina Photo credit: Carolina Digital Library and Archives / Wikimedia Commons
My hand is trembling as I stick it into the dark air. I wasn’t planning on asking a question. Definitely not this question. But it needs to be asked, and I don’t see any other Black people in this theater in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. “I’m so glad My Name Is Pauli Murray exists,” I say, pausing to inhale to steady my voice. “And I’m wondering what types of tradeoffs or perhaps intentions you and your co-writer and director might have had, as white filmmakers telling a story about a person of color.”
The director, Julie Cohen, shifts in her seat, squinting in the bright light, thanking me for the question. “We had a very diverse team,” she says, naming a few people of color who she thinks are here in the audience. “And we tried to use Pauli’s own voice and writing wherever possible.”
She goes on for a while and I thank her, handing the microphone back, lacking the confidence or diplomacy to articulate the follow-up question now jumbling inside—or to tell her that she didn’t really answer my question.
Outside, my friend and college bestie, Patrick, says how important movies about less well-known Black activists are. “I mean, I had no idea about Pauli Murray, and I’m a Black lawyer in New York City doing the same type of work.” He shakes his head, referring to Murray’s work as a civil rights lawyer, feminist activist, Episcopal priest, and author.
“Dude, I had no idea either,” I respond. I then quote a line from another documentary I watched back in July: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that Black history will be erased.” The line was from an older (and largely forgotten) Black artist featured in Summer of Soul, a 2021 Sundance Award-winning film about a festival no one today knows about: the Harlem Cultural Festival, the “Black Woodstock” of 1969, the same year that the other, mostly white, festival took place in upstate New York.
But does that mean white people should tell these stories? And what is lost when they do?
Of course, white directors and producers have access to the same historical facts. In the film, we see Murray refusing to sit in the back of the bus, fifteen years before Rosa Parks did in Montgomery. We see Ruth Bader Ginsburg credit Murray as an author on the title page of RBG’s Supreme Court brief Reed v. Reed (1971), telling us in an interview that her legal team was “standing on her shoulders . . . Pauli was way ahead of the times.” We learn how Murray’s work was the foundation for interpreting the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to guarantee not just racial, but gender equality.
These are things that scholars know, but ordinary people will learn from this documentary. “But here’s the follow up question I wanted to ask the director,” I say, as Patrick steps under the brightly-lit Washington Square arch. “Sure, you ‘used Pauli’s own words whenever possible,’ but Pauli wrote hundreds of thousands of pages; isn’t choosing which words to include and exclude, still you telling Pauli’s story? And, is having Black people on the film’s production team really the same as having a Black person making those decisions as the film’s director or producer? Are we not talking about what is lost when two white women tell this story? Or about the Black directors who now have one less story to tell?”
“Let them know,” Patrick laughs, fanning me off.
I laugh too. I don’t mean to sound mad, but I actually am. Pauli Murray was a legend, but unlike Summer of Soul, a masterpiece directed by Questlove that brought me to tears, Pauli Murray’s movie is miles away from mastery. There is no feeling inside of it. There wasn’t a single point where I felt emotion. And yet, Murray’s life was packed with emotional moments: when Pauli was rejected from the University of North Carolina because she was Black; when Pauli was rejected from Harvard Law because she was “not of the sex entitled to be admitted into Harvard”; when Pauli became the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church.
And it’s not just me: according to the New York Times, although Murray’s story is “remarkable and extensive,” the movie feels “cheesy and hollow,” “like an illustrated textbook,” “a dull and disorganized PowerPoint lecture.”
Would it have felt this way if it was directed by a Black director, a Black woman or gender nonconforming person whose daily struggles look more similar to the battles Murray faced? Perhaps in the hands of that person, Pauli’s story would have had a chance at becoming more than just an informative 91-minute film; Not just a history of her words and achievements and setbacks, all of which we could read in the library, but an exploration into the parts we can’t easily access: the pain, the joy, the heart, the soul. In a Black auteur’s hands, perhaps Pauli’s story could have become more than just a documentary. It could have become art.
But here’s the sad reality: we’ll probably never find out. Now that the story’s been told, it’s unlikely that the industry will see a reason to tell it again. Which brings us to another reality: white directors are regularly chosen over Black directors, even for films about Black people. The data are there: my former grad school classmate Ammanuel Zegeye and his team at McKinsey reported earlier this year that 92 percent of film executives are white and less than 6 percent of the writers, directors, and producers of U.S.-produced films are Black. Anecdotes are all around too. Mine and Patrick’s undergrad classmate, Nijla Mu’min, had to fundraise on Kickstarter and pitch over 60 production companies to raise less than $396,000 for her feature film, Jinn, and now co-directs alongside other breakthrough successes like Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay. My own brother, a poet and screenwriter, has been writing and pitching TV and film projects for years and has finally joined a group of Black writers focused on overcoming the barriers for Black writers in TV.
Am I saying that white people should stop trying to tell Black stories? No: we need more Black stories. And there are millions and millions to tell. But those stories should be well-told, by well-informed people.
More importantly, we need more Black people to tell Black stories, and they are not going to get the chance when white people—who are better positioned to get funding, studio backing, and distribution—are jumping the queue. We need white people to make space for the Black writers and directors who are trying to tell these stories. We need mentorship and opportunities and champions for them to become these writers and directors. We need filmmakers like Julie Cohen to realize what is lost when they tell our stories, and when it might be best to step aside and allow, or even elevate, Black artists to tell these stories.
Benje Williams is co-founder of Understory, a nonprofit with a mission to restore forest landscapes, and a co-founder / former CEO of Amal Academy, an education venture in Pakistan. He has an MBA from Stanford and is a Public Voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He tweets at @benjewilliams.