In 1968, there were 485 representatives in the U.S. Congress.  Only 11 were women and only 5 were black, but there had been no black women.  A schoolteacher from the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn changed that.  Her name was “Shirley.”

Laura's Review: B

Writer/director John Ridley ("Jimi: All Is by My Side") follows the recent biopic fashion of focusing on one major aspect of a subject’s life, here the year, 1972, Shirley Chisholm (Regina King) ran for the Democratic primary for President of the United States.  His film is almost a companion piece to Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “Rustin,” another film about a black political powerhouse whose star powers a film that lacks subtlety in some places while being dramatically undernourished in others.  That’s not to say “Shirley” isn’t a good film as it certainly is, a strong historical lesson about a true path forger.

Ridley quickly colors in Chisolm’s introduction to the U.S. Capital, commemorated in a freshman photo on the House steps where hers is the one black, female face amidst a sea of white males.  She immediately wields her take no prisoners approach by not only shutting down a white male colleague who marvels daily that she makes the same salary he does but by getting the Speaker to change her committee assignment from the agricultural one she knows holds no value for her own constituents.

Everything changes when her mentor and advisor, Wesley McDonald 'Mac' Holder (the late Lance Reddick), informs her that the group of Florida women she challenged to raise $5K to get her on the Presidential ballot not only did so, but doubled the amount.  He wants to know what to tell them, clearly not anticipating her answer.  And so, on January 25, 1972, Shirley Chisolm announces her candidacy with a platform appealing to the disenfranchised and oppressed.  She’ll appoint her Cornell law student intern, Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges), as her national student coordinator, convincing him he’s up to the job, an important one during the first year eighteen year-olds can vote.   She’ll get the backing of black representative Ron Dellums (Dorian Crossmond Missick) of California, a state that will also turn out the twenty-five year-old Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson) as a campaign volunteer.  Stanley Townsend (Brian Stokes Mitchell) is hired as her campaign manager, a job he wrestles with given Shirley’s unconventional methods (she eventually fires him).  Shirley appoints her husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie) as security, a position which will bring their marital conflicts to a head when she is targeted in an assassination attempt.  Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard) is in charge of her campaign finances, although that was never clear to this viewer as he acts more like a personal assistant and their warm relationship ensures there is little surprise when we learn he became her second husband during the film’s closing credits.   

Ridley showcases many aspects of Shirley’s challenges during this time from the personal to the political.  Her sister, Muriel St. Hill (Reina King), bore a grudge over their father’s favoritism toward Shirley and so was unsupportive until a late change of heart.  Shirley dealt with horrific racism and sexism during the campaign, one which also featured the candidacy of George Wallace (W. Earl Brown).  When Wallace was shot, Shirley, having experienced the same terror, was the first to visit him in the hospital, a controversial move.  When the networks denied her a place in the debates, she sent her law student out to sue them – and he won!  And when Barbara Lee convinces her that it is indeed worth campaigning in the winner-takes-all state of California, a meeting with Huey Newton (Brad James) is arranged at the home of Diahann Caroll (Amirah Vann) for a Black Panther endorsement (we never do learn how this affected her campaign).

When it is quite clear Shirley has no shot at the nomination, she continues with a Rocky-esque quest for delegates to affect change at the Democratic Convention, but is betrayed by those who’d pledged to stand strong, like Dellums and Walter Fauntroy (André Holland).       

King gives us a woman of strong ideals, but one who is so tenacious in achieving the goals she sets for herself she can be callous to those supporting her, something which is seen primarily in her marriage.  Ridley’s script can be heavy handed as he clearly frames Shirley’s political challenges so the parallels to today are unmistakable and her words are repeated by her protégés not once, but twice.  With  “Shirley,” Ridley and King may illustrate history repeating itself, but they also showcase one dynamic idealist’s power reverberating through decades.

Robin's Review: B

Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the United States Congress where she served for seven terms. She was also the first black candidate to run for the office of President of the United States and and the first woman to run for that high office in “Shirley.”

John Ridley writes and directs what I can only call a good, old-fashioned biopic about a remarkable lady who left her imprint on her country and made history in the process. Regina King breathes life into her Shirley Chisholm and, from the start, embodies the energy and dedication of the woman.
Ridley concentrates, first, on Chisholm’s hard-fought battle to get elected as the US Representative for her Brooklyn-neighborhood district. She throws herself into her job with the inkling of an idea of, some day, running for President of the United States. By 1he time of the start of the 1972 presidential campaign season, the idea becomes fact.

Ridley assembles a very talented cast to tell Shirley’s story and the nuts and bolts of a running a national campaign for the country’s highest office. But, the film belongs to Regina King as the irresistible force AND unmovable object of a woman who wants to do what is right for her constituents and her country.

While the bulk of “Shirley” is focused on her ’72 presidential campaign, time is taken to show where the woman came from and the family that supported her. But, that came at a cost to her siblings who lived with her always being in the limelight and they in her shadow. This is brought out in a couple of key scenes with the Chisholm’s sister Muriel (Reina King) that give a little more depth to their characters and Shirley’s early motivation.

Shirley Chisholm was a remarkable woman in many ways and the director and his cast and crew do a fine job in showing just how she achieved that and the sacrifices she (and others) made. As I said, it is a good, old-fashioned biopic that tells the story of slice of life in a stellar career.

Netflix releases "Shirley" in select theaters on 3/15/24 before it begins streaming on 3/22/24.