‘Shirley’ Review: Regina King Shines As Political Trailblazer And First Black Female Elected To Congress And To Run For President

Many may not know the name Shirley Chisholm, but it is not for lack of Hollywood trying to keep her flame alive. The seven-term Brooklyn congresswoman, who became the first African American woman elected to Congress when she won in 1968, also became the first woman and first African American to seek the nomination for President of either major party when she ran for the Democratic nomination in 1972. She defined the word “trailblazer” and her story is indeed inspiring, if also frustrating for all the obstacles she had to overcome in a male-dominated business of governing. Uzo Aduba won an Emmy for her supporting role as Chisholm the 2020 limited series Mrs. America, even as the series itself was focused on conservative gadfly Phyllis Schaffly played by Cate Blanchett. That series touched on the 1972 campaign and thus Chisholm as well, but now, after 15 years of trying, Regina King has realized a longtime goal of doing a movie solely focused on Chisholm. In addition to playing the title role, King is also a producer, probably facing the same stiff odds bringing Chisholm’s life to the screen that her subject faced in Congress, where she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation during her career and truly made a difference.

Writer-director John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) wisely does not try to tell Chisholm’s cradle-to-grave tale but instead zeroes in on that extraordinary time in this country where a feisty Black woman dared to stand up to her party’s power structure and put herself in the running for President. Vietnam was raging, Richard Nixon was running for re-election, and a lot of white men were running for the Democratic nomination to oppose him — notably Sen. George McGovern, fiercely anti-war and rallying young voters. Into the race came Chisholm, just four years after being elected to Congress, and no doubt she was on a mission that inspired an enthusiastic group around her to support this seemingly Quixotic quest. That she ultimately collected an impressive 152 delegates was a triumph in and of itself, certainly against all odds. In focusing narrowly on this period of her life, Ridley delivers a potent look at politics and the personalities drawn to it like moths to a flame.

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None were more determined and confident of their place at the table than Chisholm, but it was brutal, and we see the backstabbing along the way, the highs and lows, the battle with the very male Congressional Black Caucus as well as conflicts in her own inner circle, and in her personal life as her marriage hits a rocky road.

You can absolutely see why King tried so hard to get this made. It is a rich role and she nails it, blending the charisma, confidence, plucky fight and determination that made Chisholm such a unique political figure. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly Lance Reddick in one of his final roles as Wesley “Mac” Holder, her Presidential advisor. He is commanding and anything but a “yes man.” Also making impressions are Terrence Howard as a key fundraiser and financial advisor; Brian Stokes Mitchell as her political strategist and campaign manager; and Andre Holland as calculating D.C. congressional candidate Walter Fauntroy.

Others in the large cast include King’s own sister and fellow producer Reina King, who plays Chisholm’s sister Muriel St. Hill, a sibling who says what she thinks. Lucas Hedges is perfectly cast as former intern and Cornell student Robert Gottlieb, who takes on the task of being the campaign’s youth coordinator.

It was also fun to see Christina Jackson as a young Barbara Lee, campaign worker at the time who eventually was elected to Congress herself in 1998, no doubt due to inspiration she received from Chisholm. W. Earl Brown has brief but effective screen time as race-baiting Alabama Gov. George Wallace, also seeking the nomination. The film portrays his near-assassination and the odd-couple moment as Chisholm insists, against less wise advice, on going to visit him in the hospital. It is a scene that shows, as well as any, what kind of person “Fighting Shirley” (as she was nicknamed) really was.

Producers are Regina King, Reina King, Anikah McLaren, Elizabeth Haggard and Ridley. It is a production from Participant, a company dedicated to stories focused on important issues and people behind them, and will be streaming on Netflix, which on top of the Oscar-nominated Rustin has admirably greenlit biopics of perhaps lesser-known people dedicated to making significant social change. Certainly that is Shirley.

Title: Shirley
Distributor: Netflix
Release date: March 15, 2024 (limited theatrical release); March 22, 2024 (streaming)
Director-screenwriter: John Ridley
Cast: Regina King, Lance Reddick, Lucas Hedges, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andre Holland, Terrence Howard, Christina Jackson, Michael Cherrie, W. Earl Brown, Reina King
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 1 hr 57 min

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