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‘Shirley’ Review: Regina King Is Formidable in Solid Political Bio That Only Sometimes Matches Its Subject’s Passion

Netflix’s Shirley is in so many ways a companion piece to the streaming platform’s recent Rustin that the two films could be entries in the same anthology series. Both shed light on influential Black political figures too long undervalued in historical accounts of their era. Both are driven by commanding performances from first-rate actors in the title roles. Both focus on specific chapters of the lives they depict, mostly skirting the clichés of cradle-to-grave biopics. But both also struggle to frame their subjects in the forceful dramatic terms they merit, getting stuck in too much expository talk and at times nudging reclamation into hagiography.

There’s a moment late in the film, where after long resisting the notion of campaigning in California as a waste of time and resources in her run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (Regina King) finally agrees to make a play for the state and heads West. A meeting is arranged on neutral ground at the home of the actress Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann) between Chisholm and radical leader Huey P. Newton (Brad James) in a bid to secure the Black Panthers’ endorsement. “It’s like marrying thunder and lightning,” says Carroll of the encounter.

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Thunder and lightning are precisely the qualities that writer-director John Ridley’s handsomely mounted but somewhat dutiful portrait could use more of. Which is not to say the movie’s a dud. It may be conventional but it’s never uninteresting, thanks to King and a strong ensemble in the key roles. And no one could argue with its value in bringing Chisholm’s achievements to the attention of younger generations perhaps unfamiliar with her legacy.

While Ridley’s script generally feels a little thin on social context, it opens with some telling data about the composition of the House of Congress in 1968 — of the 435 elected representatives, 11 were women and zero were Black women. That makes Shirley stand out in the sea of white male faces on the U.S. Capitol steps in the freshman class photo of the 91st Congress the following year.

The schoolteacher whose roots were split between Brooklyn and Barbados broke the glass ceiling and remained in office for seven terms, representing the 12th congressional district of New York until 1983.

Established as feisty and not easily intimidated from the outset, she puts a good old boy irked that they make the same salary in his place, forges an allegiance with Black California congressman Ron Dellums (Dorian Crossmond Missick) and ignores his counsel when he advises her to stay in line and wait her turn. Instead, she tangles with House Speaker McCormack (Ken Strunk) over her assignment to the agricultural committee, an area of negligible benefit to her constituents in low-income urban Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Just two years later, when Florida women show financial support to put Chisholm on the primary ballot, Shirley decides to run for president, dismissing the doubts of her mentor, “Mac” Holder (Lance Reddick). Reasoning that candidates for the Democratic nomination are predominantly white middle-aged men, she feels strongly about the need for someone in the race who represents Blacks, women and Latinos, the youth and the working class.

She appoints Mac as her campaign advisor, puts Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard) in charge of fundraising and names her husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie) head of security.

Other key appointments include Stanley Townsend (Brian Stokes Mitchell) as the campaign manager with whom she would clash, and Cornell law student Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges), her admiring former intern, as youth coordinator, a strategic part of the campaign given that the 1972 presidential election was the first after the voting age was lowered to 18.

Also significant is Shirley’s meeting with Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), a 25-year-old single mother who believes registering to vote is futile given that politics doesn’t exist for Black women. Hired to work on the campaign, Barbara becomes Shirley’s protégée, steered on a path that would make her an enduring force in the Democratic Party. Barbara is one of the earliest advocates for going after California.

Vowing to “give politics back to the people” and promoting herself as a catalyst for change, Shirley becomes a persuasive orator, winning over skeptics but also encountering ugly racism. That includes an assassination attempt that leaves her badly shaken and perhaps drives her unpopular decision to pay a hospital visit to segregationist Alabama governor and rival candidate George Wallace (W. Earl Brown) after he is paralyzed by gunshot wounds in an attempt on his life.

The nuts-and-bolts campaign efforts of strategizing, raising funds, courting delegates and resisting the push to drop out from fellow Black politicians like the slippery D.C. delegate Walter Fauntroy (André Holland) are quite absorbing, embroidered here and there with archival news footage. But movies like The Ides of March and Game Change, as well as TV series like The West Wing and House of Cards, have tracked that process more dynamically.

Ridley occasionally slips into didacticism; he has trouble building conflict and momentum, even with the clock ticking until the primaries. That’s perhaps largely because many people will know the outcome of Chisholm’s campaign — or see it coming even if they don’t — and the stinging failure of an election that was supposed to be a game-changer ending up with a landslide second-term Nixon victory. Thanks for nothing, George McGovern.

One of the more shocking roadblocks in Chisholm’s path is the networks’ efforts to stop her from participating in televised debates and her resulting lawsuit calling their obstruction a violation of an FCC mandate. That gives Hedges’ Gottlieb a chance to prove himself, foreshadowing the power trial and appellate attorney he was to become.

But even Shirley herself appears aware relatively early that she’s throwing her energy into what’s likely an unwinnable fight, allowing King to inject gnawing uncertainty into her characterization. For the most part, however, she’s tenacious and persistent, qualities all too familiar to straight-talking realist Mac. He has the unenviable task of trying to guide a woman whose sheer force of will means she is frequently resistant to guidance. Reddick, to whom the film is dedicated, brings velvet-voiced, steely authority that makes Mac a compelling figure in one of the actor’s final roles.

King gets to add different shadings to her performance in scenes with Conrad, from quiet discussions to bitter standoffs. Their marriage is one of mutual support, though not without friction, presaging irreconcilable differences to come. And the warm affection between Shirley and the cool-headed, charismatic Arthur makes it not entirely surprising that he ended up as her second husband.

There are tender moments also with her sister Muriel (Reina King), who views Shirley’s political ambitions as a direct result of their father making her believe she was special. Having the King siblings play this test and ultimate resilience of sisterly bonds gives their scenes together an affecting emotional charge.

DP Ramsey Nickell (who worked with Regina King on Ridley’s ABC anthology series American Crime) gives Shirley a polished sheen while evoking the visual textures of early ‘70s films. The production design and costumes of Dina Goldman and Megan “Bijou” Coates, respectively, capture the period with refreshing understatement, and Tamar-kali’s delicate score is similarly subtle. (Coincidentally, the Brooklyn musician composed the score for Josephine Decker’s 2020 feature, also called Shirley.)

If Ridley’s film could have used an extra shot or two of raw power, it nonetheless is a vibrant depiction of a politician who opened the door for people of all backgrounds, particularly Black women, to claim a seat at the table. King portrays her with the dignity, grit and passion of a trailblazer who made a difference, though the performance is rigorously unshowy.

The movie has been a 15-year passion project for the star and her sister, who serve as lead producers. Given King’s success at breathing drama into the lengthy dialectics of her riveting 2020 feature debut behind the camera, One Night in Miami, it seems legitimate to wonder how Shirley would have turned out if she had directed it herself.

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