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30 Mar 2024

Regina King pays homage to activist and U. S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in Netflix’s ‘Shirley’

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March 30, 2024 Category: Entertainment Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Regina King arrives at the premiere of “Shirley” on Tuesday, March 19, 2024, at The Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

By Kharisma McIlwaine

Shirley Anita Chisholm was, without a doubt, one of the most dynamic women in history. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924, and raised in Barbados for part of her childhood, Chisholm began her career in early childhood education. She quickly became interested in politics as a way of bettering her community.

In 1964, in the face of adversity, she was elected to the New York State Assembly. Four years later, in 1968, Chisholm made history as the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. In 1972, she made history again as the first Black candidate from a major party to be nominated and the first woman, Black or white, to run as a Democrat for the office of president of the United States.

The newly released Netflix original “Shirley” tells the story of Chisholm’s run for the presidency. Written and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley, the film stars Academy Award winner Regina King as the titular character. King is surrounded by an incredible supporting cast which includes the late Lance Reddick (Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder), Terrence Howard (Arthur Hardwick Jr.), Lucas Hedges (Robert Gottlieb), André Holland (Walter Fauntroy), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Stanley Townsend), Christina Jackson (Barbara Lee), Dorian Missick (Ron Dellums), Michael Cherrie (Conrad), W. Earl Brown (George Wallace), Brad James (Huey Newton), Amirah Vann (Diahann Carroll) and Reina King (Muriel St. Hill).

“Shirley” begins with Chisholm being elected to Congress. Upon being elected, she lets her grievances be known to the speaker of the House, John W. McCormack, after he assigns her to serve on the House Agriculture Committee. Chisholm rejects the assignment, fearing she would be unable to help the people who voted for her in that assigned position.

“Shirley” immediately gives audiences a glimpse of Chisholm’s fearless approach. Viewers can also see the unfair treatment she received for daring to be ambitious in addition to the venom she receives for being a Black woman making the same $42,500 yearly salary as her white male counterparts. The film jumps to and primarily focuses on Chisholm’s 1972 run for president. From the first moment audiences see King on camera, she embodies Chisholm. Not only does King physically take on Chisholm’s appearance and her Barbadian American accent, but she also captures her fierce determination and unwavering dedication to fighting for social, economic, and political justices.

“Shirley” highlights the endless fight Chisholm had to endure during her run for the presidency. The “stay-in-your-place” rhetoric spewed at her from both the citizens and politicians of the time is amplified by the blatant racism and sexism she faced, ironically, from those in the women’s liberation and Civil Rights movements. In the film, King emphasizes the irony of the white feminist movement not supporting her because she is a Black woman, while her male counterparts not supporting her because she’s a woman. Even as the feminist movement encouraged women not to allow men to dictate what women could or could not do, Chisholm was reminded that white women viewed her Blackness as a barrier to what she should be allowed to do. The feminist movement aligned itself with whiteness in the same way that the Civil Rights Movement often partnered with sexism. As a direct result, Black women were often relegated to the sidelines.

Chisholm refused to operate within the lines of the status quo restrictions of acceptable roles and rules that were drawn for her as a Black woman by the white male dominant social structure. She refused to let her pride in her Black womanhood be overshadowed by the antiquated thinking regarding womanhood that many still hold today. In “Shirley,” Chisholm follows her internal compass at every turn, refusing to accept the unacceptable. She made difficult, often unpopular decisions despite the pushback she received even from her advisors. A prime example highlighted in the film is Chisholm’s decision to sue the major networks for not allowing her to participate in televised political debates.

She sued and won, again securing her place in history as a tour de force.

In addition to the battles Chisholm faced in the political spear, she also faced marital troubles as the financial burdens of running for office mounted. She faced backlash from her family (namely her sister Muriel), who initially did not support her political aspirations. She faced betrayal by her political allies, who turned their backs on her when they were presented with opportunities to advance their political ambitions.

She also faced literal death threats and attempts on her life at the hands of racists who couldn’t fathom the idea that a Black woman dared to run for the highest office in the land.

What perhaps is most interesting is seeing the juxtaposition between Chisholm’s battle in 1972 and the battle that many women, especially women of color, face in today’s political landscape. The constant questions surrounding women’s ability to navigate politics remain a dog whistle used to downplay women’s ability to lead. Chisholm’s rejection of the confinement so many people placed at her feet continues to inspire today.

King gives a stellar performance as Chisholm. The incredible casting and characters she is surrounded by throughout the film only amplify the importance of Chisholm’s work in shifting what was and is seen as normal. Although the pacing of the film would perhaps have been better as a series, allowing more time for the audience to experience the greatness that is Chisholm with a more nuanced pace, the casting is spot on, the performances are strong, history is accurately centered, and King truly honors Chisholm’s legacy in her portrayal.

“Shirley” is available to stream on Netflix.

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