Shirley Has a Remarkable Subject, But Loses the Personal in the Political

And Regina King is simply terrific

Mar 22, 2024 at 7:29 am
Regina King stars as Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress
Regina King stars as Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress COURTESY OF NETFLIX

The late Shirley Chisholm is having a moment. The first African American woman elected to Congress, and the first woman to run for president of the United States, Chisholm, who died in 2005 at the age of 80, is the inspiration for Shirley, a compelling but dramatically stilted docudrama starring a superb Regina King. The Netflix film continues an unexpected small-screen Chisholm boon, beginning with Udo Aduba’s vibrant depiction of her in an episode of the Cate Blanchett series Mrs. America and continuing in Hulu’s recent History of the World: Part 2, which finds an exuberant Wanda Sykes starring in a sitcom called Shirley!

Sykes bursts into song as Chisholm attempts to win over delegates at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, an irreverence that isn’t available to King, who must play it straight, per writer-director John Ridley’s determinedly intense reenactment of the convention’s tumultuous behind-the-scenes events. In focusing on Chisholm’s presidential campaign, Ridley, who wrote 12 Years a Slave, as well as the brilliant ABC series American Crime, which also starred King, sacrifices the details and range of Chisholm’s life and accomplishments, a choice that makes for a film that often struggles to find the personal in the political. 

Shirley opens in 1968, as the 43-year-old New York state assemblywoman is elected to Congress. Each day, in her first week, she’s stopped in the rotunda by a Southern congressman. He’s a newcomer too, but can’t resist taunting her with the same observation, “Imagine, you making 42.5 like me.” There’s a world of contempt in the way his voice comes down hard on “42.5,” but he’s not prepared for Chisholm to answer him with her own sharp enunciation of the number. He slinks away, abased, however briefly. It’s a small moment, but one of the few in the film that offers a chance to see Chisholm squaring off, with her trademark wit and ferocity, against the institutional racism she must have encountered every day of her political life.

click to enlarge As a presidential candidate, Shirley (Regina King) brings on Arthur Hardwick, Jr. (Terrence Howard) as an advisor. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
As a presidential candidate, Shirley (Regina King) brings on Arthur Hardwick, Jr. (Terrence Howard) as an advisor.

In a beat, three years pass and Chisholm has been petitioned to run for president by her constituents, who’ve raised a bit of money to get her started. She assembles a team of advisors, including her stalwart friends Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder (the late Lance Reddick) and her head of finance, Arthur Hardwick, Jr. (Terrence Howard), as well as a former aide named Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges) who agrees to be her youth coordinator. When she tells him she’s running for president, Gottlieb exclaims, “Right the hell on, Mrs. C.” 

Not many in power support her — not the Congressional Black Caucus, or the leaders of the women’s rights movement. But on the road, Chisholm finds adoring crowds among people of color and among college students eligible to vote for the first time. Along the way, she takes on a young protégé, Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), a Black activist (and future Congresswoman) who didn’t believe in voting until she met Chisholm. 

In a movie overstuffed with men, Jackson and King spark off one another, and share one of the movie’s best scenes. Lee keeps pressing Chisholm to attend a Black political convention in Gary, Indiana, but Chisholm keeps refusing. Frustrated, Lee demands to know why. “They have made it clear they don’t care what Black women have to say,” says Chisholm. “That’s just how they are.” “They?” Barbara asks. “Men,” Chisholm replies. “Always plottin’ and plannin’.”

This is Ridley’s central theme, just as it was for Chisholm. It’s the endless machinations of powerful and wannabe powerful men, white and Black alike, that will prove to be the undoing of Chisholm’s daring last-minute bid to gain a spot for her platform at the ‘72 Democratic National Convention in Miami. The road to that disappointment, filled as it is with arcane delegate math, is not completely gripping, but there’s beauty in the light that fills King’s face as Chisholm lists all that will be possible if they’re able to influence George McGovern’s administration. Afterward, her voice catches, as if she can’t believe she dared voice her truest dream. 

It is in these small gestures that King finds Chisholm, even when it seems as if the screenplay itself is losing touch with her. It’s a deceptively physical performance. Shirley Chisholm walks and sits with her back straight at all times, but late one night, she comes home from the campaign trail to find that her husband (Michael Cherrie) hasn’t thought to leave her any dinner. She pulls a frozen dinner from the freezer and then sits at the kitchen table, too tired to put it in the oven. Leaning right, she takes off her glasses, crosses her leg, leans her head into her chin and falls asleep, a working woman in a plain kitchen, catching rest when she can, just like the women she grew up with, and like those she hopes to represent in the White House.

Written and directed by John Ridley. Streams on Netflix beginning March 22

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