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Amazon Prime doc tells story of Black, queer civil rights pioneer

RBG quoted Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray before Supreme Court

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AFI Docs, gay news, Washington Blade
Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

No one could have imagined the life of Anna Pauline (Pauli) Murray, the Black, queer, gender nonconforming civil rights pioneer who lived from 1910 to 1985.

Few people have done as much to make the world more just than Murray. Last year, Murray’s scholarship was used to help the ACLU successfully argue before the Supreme Court that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects LGBTQ+ people from being fired in the workplace because of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Yet, many people don’t know who Murray was.

“My Name is Pauli Murray,” a new documentary playing in select theaters and streaming on Amazon Prime, tells the story of Murray’s fascinating life. The engrossing film is co-directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who directed “RBG,” the popular documentary on Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“RBG” is a good documentary. Yet, the 131-minutes-long “My Name is Pauli Murray” is even better.

Conveying the complexity of Murray’s life in a doc of that short length would fell many mortals. But West and Cohen are up to the task.

Using recordings of Murray’s voice; Murray’s letters, footage of everything from Murray with one of her dogs to Harlem in the 1930s along with interviews with Murray’s family and biographers, the film draws you into Murray’s world.

To say Murray was a Renaissance woman isn’t trite. Murray was a lawyer, poet, writer, activist and educator. That’s just the tip of the iceberg!

For decades, Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt were friends. Murray was a co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Gay writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her writing buddies. Murray and Baldwin were the first Black writers to be invited to the distinguished MacDowell writing colony.

In her 60s, Murray left her tenured position teaching at Brandeis University to go to seminary. She became the first Black woman to be ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church.

It doesn’t stop there! A paper Murray wrote as a Howard Law School student was a key element of Thurgood Marshall’s strategy in overthrowing racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted Murray when she argued against sex discrimination before the Supreme Court.

While she was alive, Murray was closeted about much of her personal life. Murray had a decades-long relationship with Irene Barlow. But, because of the times in which she lived, Murray couldn’t be open about their relationship.

Murray felt that she was misgendered—like a man in a woman’s body. This, too, Murray kept secret.

In “My Name is Pauli Murray,” Murray’s family and biographers refer to Murray with the pronouns “she and her.” A non-binary activist refers to Murray as “they.”

Murray is having a much-deserved moment. In 2016, Yale University named one of its residential colleges after Murray. It was the first time a Yale college was named after a person of color or an (openly) LGBTQ+ person. In 1965, Murray was the first African American to graduate from Yale with a doctorate in judicial science.

In 2017, the National Park Service, part of the Department of the Interior, Murray’s family home in Durham, N.C., as a National Historic Landmark.

Watching, “My Name is Pauli Murray,” you’re bowled over by Murray’s resilience and achievements. Fifteen years before Rosa Parks, she protested racial segregation on buses.

“I’ve lived to see my lost causes found,” Murray says.

It’s hard to humanize an icon. But, the filmmakers don’t place Murray on Mount Olympus.

Even as a child, we learn, Murray wanted to wear pants. That was fine during the week, her Aunt Pauline said, but Murray would have to wear a dress to church on Sunday. Though, few understood Murray’s feelings, Aunt Pauline called Murray “my boy girl.”

Murray and Barlow never lived together. Yet, you get a sense of their intimacy from the letters they exchanged. They called each other “Linus” and “Charlie Brown” (characters in the Peanuts comic strip) and wrote of longing to “share” listening to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony and the New York Times crossroad puzzle.

“My Name is Pauli Murray” will leave you talking about Murray and how to honor her legacy. That would have made Murray happy.

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LGBTQ youth inspired to action by “Cured” documentary and country’s homophobic past

“Cured” documentary a revelation for LGBTQ youth

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A new documentary’s archival footage of the country’s homophobic past opened the eyes of four young members of the LGBTQ+ community who were only dimly aware of the events the film describes.

“Cured,” which aired on PBS’ Independent Lens on October 11, was a revelation to the youth– who work with the D.C.-based Urban Health Media Project on multimedia health journalism. 

Some of the scenes that made an impression:

  • At a 1966 South Florida high school assembly on the evils of homosexuality, an official warns students that “if we catch you … the rest of your life will be a living hell.’’  
  • A gay psychiatrist, appearing on a 1972 American Psychiatric Association panel, is identified only as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.” He’s so afraid of reprisals that he must protect his identity by wearing a Halloween face mask and a fright wig and using a distortion mic.  
  • A series of sober, eminent psychiatrists – leaders of the profession – insist in forum after forum that homosexuality is a sickness.

For two decades, that assumption was reflected in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM),” the American psychiatric profession’s official compendium of mental and brain diseases and disorders.

“Cured” tells the story of how a relatively small number of courageous gay activists got the “gays are sick” notion struck from the manual –a pivotal moment in the gay liberation movement.

“Being gay and trans myself,’’ said Hermes Falcon, “this film meant a lot to me, because it exposed me to people that I didn’t even know were part of the movement.’’

Those people included Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny, who in the mid-1960s – when most Americans still said they feared or hated homosexuals — organized some of the first public protests against employment discrimination against gays. One depicted in “Cured”took place outside the White House.

Another early activist was Dr. John Fryer, the psychiatrist who, it later turned out, was “Dr. Anonymous.’’

 Falcon, a college freshman, also noted the tension at the heart of the story told by “Cured”: “How working together makes a big difference, but also how one person can make a big change.’’

Falcon cited the example of Fryer, who testified at the APA convention in Dallas in 1972 that anti-gay bias was hurting psychiatrists, too. At that point, the DSM’s entry 302.0, which termed homosexuality “a mental disorder,” was two decades old. Within two years of Fryer’s testimony, it had been abolished.

Another young member of the LGBTQ+ community, Adrian Gibbons, an assistant video editor at UHMP and recent college graduate, also was struck by the example of Fryer, “a real person who was risking his job to stand up for himself and the LGBTQ community.’’ His example, Gibbons said, “inspires me to fight for myself and my community, no matter the risks.’’

Gibbons noted that some trailblazers faced a harsh backlash from colleagues or family members. But he said their sacrifice was worth it, considering that “their efforts brought justice to LGBTQ people who had been injured or abused in mental institutions, and saved countless people from being put through that same torture in the future.’’

Torture is probably not too strong a word; “Cured” shows how electroshock and even lobotomy were used as elements of “conversion therapy’’ to make gay people straight.   

The early activists’ sheer courage also inspired Dillon Livingston, a high school student. The film shows, he said, that “it is imperative to remain true to yourself, even if everyone around you does not like the things that make you who you are.’’ 

Even though they faced intense discrimination and disdain, he added, the gay rights pioneers “were proud about their sexuality.’’

The four young LGBTQ+ viewers agreed that “Cured”made them more appreciative of the efforts of those who went before them, and more eager to emulate their example in the future.

As Livingston put it, “I must speak more about the queer community to inform heterosexuals about the problem we face.’’ 

Jojo Brew, an aspiring filmmaker, agreed: “All those people in the sixties and seventies fought for our rights, so it’s only fair that we continue to fight for the next generation’s rights.’’ 

“Cured” airs locally at 9 p.m. Oct. 21 on WHUT. After its broadcast premiere Oct. 11, the film will be available to stream for free on the PBS app and website for 30 days. The documentary will be rebroadcast a few more times over the next three years and eventually released on streaming platforms.

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New doc sets the record straight about ‘Fauci’

Film offers humanizing overview of hero’s life

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The good doctor himself in "Fauci" (Photo courtesy of National Geographic)

For those who lived through the AIDS epidemic, the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 was accompanied by an inescapable air of déjà vu. There were plenty of reasons for this, of course: it was a terrifying new disease, not much was known and even less understood about how it spread, there was no effective treatment or cure available, the government’s response to it sparked a political firestorm, and—most significantly—lots of people were dying. As if all that weren’t enough, right in the middle of the public conversation about it was the same familiar face, none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci himself.

For many who worked as activists during the peak years of that earlier epidemic, Fauci was the adversary. Then, as now, he found himself in the crosshairs of a whole angry sector of society, bearing the brunt of the anger that arose from their fear of an uncertain future and becoming, once again, one of the most polarizing public figures in American politics, without even being a politician. Ironically, this time around, instead of being perceived as the face of government inaction and establishment obstructionism, he has been elevated to the status of progressive icon.

To understand how that seeming transformation is possible—as well as to look past the surface parallels between cultural response to the two plagues and see the profound differences instead—it’s necessary to look past the broad strokes of the headlines and the two-line bios that make up most of the knowledge most Americans have about AIDS, COVID and Fauci, and get a more detailed knowledge of the history that links them all together. Fortunately, a new National Geographic documentary, which began streaming on Disney Plus on Oct. 6, is here to provide exactly that.

The film came about when two filmmakers, Emmy-winners John Hoffman and Janet Tobias, joined forces after being separately inspired to make a film about Fauci, who, for those who have been in an isolation module for the past 40 years, was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in 1984 and has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues during the decades since. Aided by unprecedented access to their subject, who was not only supportive but fully cooperative, along with access to decades of deep archival material and a wide array of prominent public figures eager to participate, the result of their collaboration is an impressive piece of cinematic journalism titled, simply, “Fauci.”

Starting out with a humanizing overview of Fauci’s early life, the film offers us a protagonist whose dreams of a private Park Avenue practice gave way to a passion for the study of infectious diseases, and whose enduring marriage to Dr. Christine Grady began with a “meet-cute” that would have been right at home in a Hollywood rom-com. It then tracks his professional career, not just the two epidemics that have bookended his time in public service to date, but details from the intervening years that most people have either forgotten or never known, like his efforts in stemming the threat of Ebola when it began to appear in the U.S., and his role in ensuring global action to the AIDS crisis that was unfolding in Africa and the Caribbean.

Still, it’s inevitable that the documentary concentrates most of its attention on his most famous contributions—spearheading the fights against AIDS and COVID in America—and it does so by highlighting the aforementioned parallels between the two epidemics while also giving us a Fauci’s-eye view of how each played out. Throughout, we go back and forth across the decades, with the help of news footage and extensive interviews, to gather insight from the defining moments of each of these historic public health battles; we are reminded that, while Fauci was seen as the opposition by ACT UP and other AIDS activist organizations seeking to speed up the availability of drugs and treatment for HIV. He also listened to their concerns and learned from them. Bucking resistance from his colleagues, he gave activists and community members directly affected by AIDS a seat at the table and opened the door for their participation in designing the clinical trials that would ultimately bring the life-preserving drug cocktails that stopped a positive diagnosis from being a death sentence. While social media feeds over the past two years have been full of anti-Fauci posts reminding us of his early obstructionism in the AIDS fight, few have bothered to include the rest of that story, but “Fauci” sets the record straight.

In focusing on this end of history, however, the movie gives us a refresher course—as if one was needed—on the unprecedented level of opposition Fauci faced from the very administration it was his job to serve in the campaign against COVID. It reveals the pressures put on Fauci and his family by the vitriolic hatred of his detractors, the hardships imposed on his life and routine by the security protocols enacted in response to the death threats that come as a natural consequence of being used as a political scapegoat. And it makes quite clear that those who protest his methods this time around are working from a very different motivation than the one that drove the heroes of ACT UP.

More important than any of this, perhaps, is the chance “Fauci” gives us to get to know the man himself. The filmmakers position him squarely in his rightful place at the center of their movie, allowing us a look past the professional veneer that has become a fixture on news broadcasts and at press conferences. What we see there is the man we know, amplified by the freedom to let his compassion, his humanity, his intelligence, and yes, his sense of humor show. It’s a winning portrait that never rings false, and the eager participation of a widely varied crowd of interviewees to sing his praises—from George W. Bush to Susan Rice to Peter Staley to Bono—only reinforces its sincerity.

Of course, those who dislike Fauci are unlikely to be swayed by the sympathetic portrait offered by Hoffman and Tobias’ film—which, though it, like Fauci himself, is candid in acknowledging his missteps along the way, offers little in the way of negative commentary about its subject—and will doubtless brush it aside as “woke” propaganda. To answer that phenomenon, it might be best to offer a quote from the good doctor about why he is so hated by his critics. “I represent something that is uncomfortable for them. It’s called the truth.”

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‘Evan Hansen’ is better than you think – and that’s too bad

Platt’s artificiality, film’s tokenism hard to get past

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Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever in ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ (Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

It’s always a let down when a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations.

Take, for example, “Dear Evan Hansen,” Steven Chbosky’s new film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that made stars of its lead actor (Ben Platt) and songwriters (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Based on the less-than-favorable buzz – especially around the choice to let Platt reprise a role for which he was now a decade too old – that dominated online conversation around it in the weeks before its release, I walked into the theater fully expecting to see an appallingly terrible movie.

To my deep disappointment, it was not. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a great one, either. It just wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good disaster I was looking forward to hating.

If you’re unfamiliar, “Evan Hansen” is the tale of a teenager (Platt) returning to school for his senior year after a traumatic summer experience. Struggling with severe social anxiety, he lives with a divorced mother (Julianne Moore) who works extra shifts to make ends meet. Assigned by his therapist to write himself encouraging letters every day, his life turns upside down when a classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan) intercepts one such letter and takes it from him. When Connor takes his own life a few days later, his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) find the letter in his pocket and mistakenly think it was written by their son to a secret friend; they reach out to Evan, hoping to hear stories about a happier Connor than the angry loner they knew at home. Though he tries at first to correct their misunderstanding, his desire to ease their grief soon has him inventing a friendship that never existed. It’s a well-intentioned lie that soon snowballs on the internet, making Evan a viral sensation and putting him at the center of an online awareness-raising movement called The Connor Project – not to mention gaining him the attention of Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who has been his longtime crush from afar. When things inevitably begin to spiral out of his control, he is forced to recognize that building a new life for himself on a falsehood might have consequences he never had in mind – but can he muster the courage to come clean and expose himself to the world as a fraud before it’s too late to reverse the damage he’s already done?

The stage original was a hit on Broadway in 2015, but despite its popularity and accolades, it was not without its detractors. Critics and audiences alike found numerous reasons to be uncomfortable with its premise – not the least of which involved the questionable ethics at its core. The movie, which was adapted by Steven Levenson from his original book for the show, corrects for some of those criticisms, boosting the story’s diversity with a few minor character revisions and expanding the ending to allow a more complete redemption arc for its leading character. It also doubles down on the show’s youth appeal by building up some of the original content around the show’s younger characters – including a substantially expanded role for Evan’s overachieving schoolmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) – and cutting some from around the adults. For the most part, these changes strengthen and deepen the narrative; likewise, the very nature of the cinematic medium gives it an obvious advantage in exploring the story’s underlying concern with the power of the internet over our cultural and social lives. 

Yet despite these improvements, “Evan Hansen” on film still falls short of being excellent. It’s not because of weak direction; Chbosky has a gift for conveying the complex and conflicting emotions of teenage experience with nuance and insight, something that goes a long way toward keeping “Evan Hansen” from becoming trite. Nor is it the cast; the film’s talented ensemble of players is more than up to the challenge of jumping from realistic scene work into the full conceit of a musical number and finding just the right balance to make it work. In particular, the always-luminous Moore is pitch-perfect as Evan’s mom, as is Adams as her grieving counterpart; and Dever is unequivocally superb as Zoe, quietly providing the heartbreaking honesty necessary to make her character’s journey come clearly and authentically to life – something absolutely needed if we are to believe in her relationship with Evan.

And that brings us to the problem: Evan himself is a hard sell. On one hand, he is grappling with mental health issues, not to mention an absent father and an overextended mother, and therefore draws our sympathies; yet on the other, he deceives and manipulates people to gain the things he is missing in his life – the attention of his classmates, a girlfriend, a substitute family – and justifies it with the belief that he is benefitting a higher cause. Platt’s performance on Broadway helped make it work through the raw power of his emotion and his prowess as a singer.

But the world has changed in the years since “Evan Hansen” landed on Broadway. During a cultural crisis born (among other things) of the ease by which “alternative facts” can disrupt our lives, it’s grown more difficult to find such a character appealing, no matter how soulfully he warbles Pasek and Paul’s heart-tugging pop-flavored showtunes. And while Platt may deliver a faithful rendering of his acclaimed stage performance, next to the elegant self-assurance of the rest of the film’s cast he seems over-the-top, a bundle of performative tics and mannerisms that distract us from the reality of Evan’s struggles and make him come off as disingenuous.

As for the controversy around his age, it should be noted that all the film’s teen characters are played by actors in their 20s, a common practice in Hollywood movies. Still, in spite of the sometimes painfully obvious efforts made to “youthen” him for the camera, Platt is nevertheless noticeably older-looking than his co-stars, something that (for obvious reasons) is particularly troubling in his scenes with Dever, who is much more convincing as a 17-year old than he.

Still, it’s not the age problem alone that keeps “Evan Hansen” from winning us over. It’s the combination of all the artificiality he brings with him – which includes our knowledge that his father, Marc C. Platt, co-produced the film. It has the counter-productive result of tainting the sincerity of everything we see on the screen, even to the point of giving the movie’s nods to diversity and inclusion an unpleasant odor of tokenism, and it ensures that we won’t be quite as eager to bestow forgiveness on the title character as the story wants us to be.

That’s why it’s a disappointment that “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t terrible. It might have been one of the great Hollywood debacles, a monumental flop to be revered by generations of audiences who loved to make fun of it. It could have been a camp classic.

Instead, it’s just another promising project sunk by Hollywood hubris, a mediocre misfire with a few good moments that never really had the chance at being more than that, but certainly could have been so much less.

That, at least, would have made it memorable.

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