Film Column – Shirley

Much like George C Wolfe's recent Netflix film Rustin, this feels undercooked, as if we are joining the story halfway through.

NEW to Netflix, Shirley is a biopic about the first black congresswoman and her trailblazing run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination.

Shirley Chisholm — starring Regina King as the resolute politician — is not as celebrated a figure as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King before her, but this John Ridley-directed biographical drama, is determined to change all that.

Shirley is a solid but somewhat underwhelming film.

Much like George C Wolfe’s recent Netflix film Rustin, about civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who helped change the course of history by orchestrating the 1963 March on Washington, this feels undercooked, as if we are joining the story halfway through.

King is powerful in the part of the dogged congresswoman but for all its potential, the film is far too hurried. Ridley only scratches at the surface of Chisholm’s story.

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Her narrative brims over with political intrigue, personal life melodrama, all set to the racial tensions of Nixon’s America. She did battle with many of the historical figures of the time, and it is clear she is deserving of a much better film than this.

This Netflix drama lacks the convictions of its central character and is guilty of being overly formulaic with a rather one-dimensional portrayal of its main players.

There’s a famous story about Chisholm’s 1968 congressional campaign where she was at home one night in New York and an elderly lady knocked on her door. She was holding a grubby envelope full of nickels, dimes, and quarters, which she and her friends had raised as campaign contributions. It amounted to $9.62.

This is a story she told often during her political life. Ridley embellishes the tale for the purpose of his cinematic retelling, but sadly it lacks the same punch. Like the film itself, it is watered-down and recanted through a soft lens, conforming to the political biopic template, and leaving its audience wanting.

Shirley is certainly not worthy of a woman who ran for president “despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo”.