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‘Shirley’ Review: In a Docudrama About the 1972 Presidential Campaign, Regina King Plays Shirley Chisholm in All Her Contained Fervor

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At a glance, Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign for president was the definition of quixotic. She was 47 years old; at the time, she had served only one term (starting in 1968) as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. (Her district centered on the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn.) To say that Chisholm wasn’t a seasoned Washington, D.C., player would be putting it mildly. And she looked like an outsider. She wore puffy wigs, schoolmarm glasses, and tasteful print dresses. There was a slightly prim stoicism about her, though she lit up whenever she flashed her smile with the gap tooth on the right side. She looked like who she was — a day-care supervisor from Bed-Stuy, and a devout Christian.

But her persona didn’t end there. This church lady was a fighter, of Guyanese and Bajan descent, and she spoke with a pristine propriety that carried a hint of the island cadence you heard in Sidney Poitier. She was proper, all right, but it would have been a mistake to read that as quaint.

In “Shirley,” John Ridley’s sharp and lively inside-political docudrama, Regina King plays Shirley Chisholm with a quiet force you can’t look away from. On the podium, Shirley speaks with elegant fortitude, and in private only a little less so; in her decorous way, she lets it rip. The film opens shortly after she’s elected to Congress, and we see her approaching the Speaker of the House and asking him for a different committee assignment — something that a freshman representative simply doesn’t do. But Chisholm does. King endows her with unwavering eye contact and a knowing lilt, along with a sense of purpose that’s unbending, at once fearless and stubborn.

“Shirley” then leaps ahead four years to the announcement of her presidential campaign. As the film reveals with clear-eyed fervor, the campaign was anything but quixotic. Did Chisholm believe that she had a chance of winning? She was too intelligent not to know the odds. That she came on as if she really did have a chance, never backing down from that, was part of her grace as an American. She was challenging anyone to look at her and say “Why not?” As a presidential candidate, the Shirley Chisholm we see in “Shirley” vows to speak for the downtrodden, for workers and for citizens of color, but her real message, which is way ahead of its time, is that politics has been taken away from the people. She wants to bring it back. That mission begins with her rhetoric, which has a captivating directness that echoes the hard stentorian slap of Malcolm X’s firebrand bravado.

Chisholm’s candidacy wasn’t just an act of faith — it was about faith, an investment in the future of what those who felt cut out of the system, notably Black Americans, could and would achieve. She showed the way, and she was right. At one point late in the campaign, she’s introduced to a luncheon of Black delegates at the Democratic Convention as “The only Black woman crazy enough to run for president of these United States.” The Chisholm campaign was actually the essence of sanity (she’s level-headed, with the courage to take a stand against busing), but “Shirley” shows you that she did have to be a little “crazy” to do it. Her determination pushes itself to the wall. She steamrolls her husband, played by Michael Cherrie as a loyal spouse who is always there to support her but winds up fading into the woodwork. She refuses the role of fringe candidate. That’s her message: that those who feel locked out of the system will fight their way in only when they stop thinking like outsiders.

Ridley, the veteran novelist, screenwriter, and director, stages “Shirley” with the kind of entertaining, fast-talk aplomb one remembers from that rock-solid run of HBO political docudramas (“Recount,” “Game Change”). This one isn’t HBO; it’s Netflix. But it fits snugly into the small screen in the same way. Ridley, who wrote and directed it, doesn’t go in for jittery existential media fireworks. He stages the backroom meetings with a declarative punch that’s just this side of theatrical. The late Lance Reddick, in one of his last screen appearances, plays Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder, Chisholm’s chief advisor, and Reddick is marvelous, whether he’s pushing the campaign forward or trying to rein Shirley in. Terrence Howard hovers tellingly as Arthur Hardwick Jr., the finance manager attempting to steer a campaign with hardly any finances. And Christina Jackson, as the student volunteer Barbara Lee (who, following the trail blazed by Chisholm, went on to become the noted congresswoman), makes her presence felt, as does Lucas Hedges, as the boyish law student Robert Gottlieb, who sues the TV networks for the right of Chisholm to appear in the Democratic debates.

“Shirley” captures the moment that made the Chisholm campaign possible. The counterculture was fading, but it had changed the world, something profoundly reflected in the 1972 presidential election. The voting age had been lowered to 18. And George McGovern was, in essence, the Democratic Party’s first — and last — counterculture candidate.

The Democrats were running against Richard Nixon and all the president’s men, but Chisholm, and the movie as well, treats McGovern as just another part of the old-boy white male establishment that she’s trying to undercut and overthrow. Watching “Shirley,” you’d never know that Chisholm and McGovern stood for so many of the same things. The film, in a rather overstated scene, extends more sympathy to George Wallace (W. Earl Brown), who Chisholm goes to visit in the hospital after he’s shot and paralyzed. That visit genuinely happened (the devout Chisholm believed in forgiveness…and repentance), but Ridley hits a wrong note by staging the encounter as if the two were old college chums. He does better in the scene where Shirley, at the home of Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann), asks Huey Newton (Brad James) for the Black Panthers’ endorsement.  

For most of the campaign, Chisholm is winning two or three percent of the delegates. But as the convention approaches, with McGovern in the lead though not with enough delegates to put him over the top, Chisholm tries to rally the Black delegates not to sell out their vote; several of the candidates pledge the release of their Black delegates to her. This was, at the time, a symbolic gesture, which the film injects with a little too much suspense. When the delegates and their leaders, like Chisholm’s friend and colleague Rep. Ron Dellums (Dorian Crossmond Missick), turn around and back McGovern, Shirley treats it as a betrayal, though she’s really betraying her own naîveté about how hardball politics is played. No, it’s not “fair,” it’s not noble, and it’s not idealistic. Shirley Chisholm’s campaign was all three, and that, as “Shirley” captures, made it not just a campaign but a beacon.