‘Shirley’ Review: A Woman Who Contained Multitudes

‘Shirley’ Review: A Woman Who Contained Multitudes

Shirley Chisholm was an American heroine who challenged simplistic political narratives of victory and defeat. Though her most famous effort — her bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972 — wasn’t successful, it was one chapter in a life’s worth of grit and innumerable wins, only a few of which can be measured by votes or contests.

She was the working-class daughter of Caribbean immigrants who achieved academic excellence despite financial struggles; an educator who advocated powerfully the rights of children, particularly those from immigrant backgrounds; a self-made politician who, at the local and state levels, fought successfully for better representation for women and minorities; and, in 1968, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

It is a pity, then, that “Shirley,” John Ridley’s new biopic starring Regina King, focuses rather narrowly on Chisholm’s failed presidential campaign. The film reaches for the urgency of a political thriller, jumping between campaign meetings, backroom negotiations and rousing speeches. But the staid visuals — bright period colors softened by a nostalgic glow — and a script made up of a string of losses convey a dull sense of a fait accompli.

Complex, meaningful events from Chisholm’s life and career become reductive paving stones in a despairing story of ill-timed ambition. An early scene, set soon after her election to Congress, shows her railing against her appointment to the Agriculture Committee and convincing the speaker of the House to reassign her. No mention is made of the fact that she served for two years on the committee, and found a way to use her position to expand the food stamp program.

The problem is that “Shirley” is interested less in what Chisholm actually did than in what she represented, as a Black woman daring to see herself as the leader of the nation. At home, Chisholm struggles to maintain her relationships with her husband and her sister, who resent the self-absorption her career requires. Her advisers (played suavely by Terrence Howard and Lance Reddick) clash with her over her unwillingness to take partisan stances; younger, more radical supporters dislike her liberalism; and in public, she receives both support and racist, sexist barbs.

King is magnetic onscreen, nailing Chisholm’s accent and her steely persona. But there is little for her to do other than trade quips with the other characters, in a drama that is too content with telling rather than showing.

Shirley
Rated PG-13 for discomfiting depictions of misogynoir. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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