Shirley

by Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic
Shirley, co-starring Regina King and Terence Howard.

(**1/2)

She was a pioneer; a political warrior; a woman who’s earned an esteemed place in ‘herstory.’

After Frederick Douglas (1848), Edwin Taylor (1904), and Channing E. Phillips (1968)–but before Jesse Jackson (1984), Alan Keyes (1992) and Barack Obama (2008), there was Shirley Chisolm (1972). All vied to be president of the United States. She was the only Black woman who dared to enter the ring; the first Black candidate vying for a major-party nomination; the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. These are distinctions that deserve more than just an honorable mention.

Giving Shirley Chisolm her due has been a passion project for actress/producer Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and her producing partner and sister Reina King. Their love and respect for Shirley is in every frame of their bio/drama/history film. Respectively, the movie chronicles Chisolm’s first days in Congress as a U.S. representative from New York City’s 12th district, which includes Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant—then recounts her decision to run for president and all the roadblocks that ensued.

What it doesn’t do is give the audience her backstory: early events that would help viewers understand how she got her drive, ambition and keen ability to stand up to bullies. Many biofilms just show a section of their subject’s life—a segment or period that’s usually the most profound. For example – Bob Marley: One Love concentrated largely on the making of his classic album Exodus. But he’s a world-famous figure. Chisolm is not. Viewers will yearn to know more about her childhood, academic accomplishments (Columbia University graduate) and early career.

On the first day of Congress in 1969, on the steps of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., a new class of freshmen poses for a photo. One member stands out. Shirley Chisolm (King). She’s Black. She’s a woman. The rest are White men. Fighting for her place in the U.S. House of Representatives starts immediately, when she’s assigned to the Agricultural Committee. Conventional wisdom says take your first assignment and be grateful. Not knowing anything about a farmer’s life, Shirley fights her way off that committee and onto another. And so, it begins with conventions thrown out the window—Chisolm finding her own path.

In the paint-by-numbers script, as written by writer/director John Ridley, historical characters are assembled, and Chisolm’s journey is charted. The depth of the characters is never more than surface with the rivalries, jealousies, saviors, detractors, supporters and backstabbers too. Don’t fault the actors. They give solid-to-excellent performances. But none are better than the words on the page, except King.

When Shirley expresses her intentions to run, her campaign advisor, Wesley McDonald ‘Mac’ Holder (Lance Reddick, The Wire), is blunt: “Shirley, if you run you can’t win.” Shirley chides him: “Well not with that attitude!” And so, she builds her inner circle: Arthur Hardwick, Jr. (Terrence Howard), who’d served with Shirley in the New York State Legislature helps with strategy. Stanley Thompson (Brian Stokes Mitchell) campaign manager. Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea), a White, Cornel law student becomes her student organizer. While Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson, Devotion), Chisolm’s young protégée, acts as her liaison to the Black community and a link to the influential Black Panthers.

Treachery is sprinkled along the way. Some of the sneaky trickery comes from Black politicians, like Walter Fauntroy (Andres Holland, Moonlight) and Ron Dellums (Dorian Missick). Add in noted figures George Wallace (W. Earl Brown) and Huey P. Newton (Brad James), and this film becomes a fairly intriguing who’s who in Black politics and American history.

The direction seems perfunctory. There’s no great artistry exhibited, but with no huge mistakes made. Ramsey Nickell’s (American Crime) camerawork captures the at-home and tense confrontations between Shirley and her overly understanding husband and head of security Conran (Michael Cherrie). An awkward outdoor meeting between Shirley and Huey at the home of Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann, Underground) is displayed, too. Shirley: “I’m going to force all the politicians to earn our votes!” Huey: “You gonna to do all that, school teacher from Brooklyn?” Shirley: “Yes, I am just a schoolteacher from Brooklyn, and Harriet was just a slave.” In general, the dialogue is thoughtful. But it’s likely these conversations are not verbatim, and at times seem too manufactured.

Trailer courtesy of Netflix

All production elements are adequate for a TV movie: production design Dina Goldman; costumes Megan Coates; set decoration Jon L. Bush and Imogene Lee and art direction Danny Brown. That’s minus some parts of the soundtrack that seem like place holder music, and not a score. A theatrical release would expose flaws. A Netflix release on the little screen is just right. Plot pieces, peaks and valleys are pulled together decently. Slowly it all starts to gel, build momentum and become educational and fascinating. But there isn’t a real climax—no satiating crescendo.

Through it all, Regina King releases a fire that retrieves the spirit of Shirley Chisolm from the less-read pages of history books. The accent, courage and determination are all in King’s bravura performance. She was right to champion this production. For Chisolm’s sake, and as a showcase for her supreme talent. Another acting kudo goes to Terence Howard who shows great restraint as Arthur Hardwick, Jr., the voice of reason. His performance is nuanced—magnetic in the most subtle way.

This is a history lesson worth learning. A political shero worth knowing. Some viewers will wish Chisolm’s legacy was kept alive in a more unique and distinguished way, while some will be grateful for any introduction to her groundbreaking achievements.

Dwight Brown writes film reviews for NNPA News and his website is WireDwightBrownInk.com.

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