review

Netflix’s Shirley Chisholm biopic captures an extraordinary life everyone should know

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
Regina King as Shirley Chisholm in Shirley.
Regina King as Shirley Chisholm in Shirley. Credit: Glen Wilson/Netflix

In the 1972 US presidential elections, Richard Nixon won the vote in 49 of the country’s 50 states. His opponent, George McGovern, eked out victories in only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.

It was a sweeping win for Nixon, the second most decisive election of the 20th century (Ronald Reagan’s 1984 election was the first). Nixon would resign in disgrace less than two years later.

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McGovern was considered the Democrats’ best chance to beat Nixon in a general election and every candidate who ran in the primaries, seeking to be their party’s pick for the ticket, eventually had to get in line behind him.

One of those challengers was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president as a candidate for either of the two major parties.

When in 2008 the Democratic nomination was down to either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, as either the first black man or the first woman to contest the presidential general election, it was Chisholm whose name came up as the person who paved the way.

SHIRLEY. Regina King (Producer) as Shirley Chisholm in Shirley. Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix  2023.
Regina King previously won an Oscar for If Beale Street Could Talk. Credit: Glen Wilson/Netflix

Chisholm spent a lifetime being a “first”, including as the first black woman to be elected to the US Congress in 1968. She forged her own path because she was a woman who wouldn’t hear the words “no” and “can’t”.

The Netflix biopic, starring Oscar winner Regina King and written and directed by John Ridley (who won an Oscar for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay), charts her presidential campaign, a crusade that was undermined, diminished and ridiculed for being a pipe-dream.

Shirley was only four years into her political career when she decided to run, uncowed by suggestions that she get out of the way. She bats away proposals that she tailor her talking points to different audiences in the north and the south of the country, and there is an attempt on her life at a public appearance.

Ridley’s film is a straightforward biopic focused on this small period in an extraordinary life, captured with fierceness and sensitivity by King.

In King’s hands, Shirley is not just a principled warrior who puts the right thing to do above the politically expedient thing to do, she’s also a person with vulnerabilities.

SHIRLEY. Regina King (Producer) as Shirley Chisholm in Shirley. Cr. Glen Wilson/Netflix  2023.
Michael Cherrie, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Lance Reddick are part of the supporting cast. Credit: Glen Wilson/Netflix

Her marriage is strained as she and her husband contend with the demands of her ambition while she also vents her frustrations and disappointments at why white women voters aren’t turning up for her the same way she supported their causes – or why black men aren’t either.

King is supported by a cast of great performers, including Terrence Howard, the late Lance Reddick, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Michael Cherrie, Andre Holland, Christina Jackson and Lucas Hedges. The script paces along briskly and Ridley’s efficient filmmaking choices spotlight the key moments.

While the 1972 US election is largely remembered for Nixon’s trouncing of McGovern and the Watergate break-ins, Chisholm’s run in the primaries has become one of that race’s greatest legacies.

For history to be made, for doors to be opened and barriers to be broken, there always has to be a first. Someone who pushed against a status quo designed to serve the interests of old, rich, white men. Chisholm wasn’t any of those things, and neither were most of her constituents.

There’s a scene in the film in which Shirley, freshly elected to Congress, gets into a row in the rotunda with the speaker of the house over a committee assignment. She’s not even meant to be speaking to this man because she lacks the “seniority” to be allowed a conversation.

“It is what it is” was not acceptable to Chisholm who wasn’t going to wait around to be given permission.

And you shouldn’t wait around to discover her story and her legacy.

Rating: 3/5

Shirley is on Netflix from Friday, March 22 at 6pm AEDT

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