Hustle Mindset

‘Shirley’ Review: This Netflix Film Had So Much Potential


There’s a moment in writer-director John Ridley’s new film, “Shirley,” based on the life and career of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black U.S. congresswoman, when you think it’s going to finally buckle under its own austere weight and let us see some humanity.

Shirley (Regina King) is studiously seated — back straight, shoulders perfectly squared — at her kitchen table telling her husband, Conrad (Michael Cherrie), that her campaign for Democratic party presidential nomination needs more funds. It hasn’t gone great. Her run has absorbed tons of money and resources and it’s in danger of reaching an anticlimactic end.

Conrad tries in vain to reason with his wife about spending money they don’t have. They go back and forth about it for a bit until Shirley lashes out with “My money!” to indicate, presumably (since the movie never really confirms this), that it’s her campaign money and she can do whatever she wants with it.

At this point at the Brooklyn Academy of Music screening of the film earlier this month, someone in the audience let out an audible gasp. Because it’s the only time in the film when Shirley is uncomposed and in the wrong. Conrad, clearly just as astonished, stares at her before stomping off to get her checkbook, bringing it to her and leaving the room in silence.

Shirley quickly regains herself — and the moment is never referred to again. It doesn’t lead to the couple having a big fight, we learn nothing more about their obviously strained relationship, or each of them as individuals, or the matter of their finances.

It’s like if a single block fell out of a Jenga tower, then leapt right back inside the fortress so neatly and nimbly that you wonder if it even happened at all.

(L to R) Christina Jackson, Michael Cherrie, Regina King, Lance Reddick and Lucas Hedges in “Shirley.”

That’s much of the experience watching “Shirley,” which focuses entirely on Chisholm’s historic and drama-filled 1972 run for nomination with little curiosity about her personhood.

We get the obligatory encounters with her racist white male peers in Congress who don’t accept her because she’s Black, and who she expeditiously puts in check. We get scenes where she reminds her small and mighty (yet exhausted) team, which includes her husband, that she doesn’t accept the word “can’t.”

We also get glimpses of her rousing speeches and encounters with marginalized communities, including her own in Bed-Stuy, utilizing her fluency in Spanish to connect with her supporters. (The film isn’t interested in this detail, but she learned the language after minoring in it at Brooklyn College).

Basically, “Shirley” has all the ingredients of the Great Black Historical Figure trope we’ve seen time and again. More on that in a bit.

What we rarely get are Shirley’s more vulnerable moments. While King is, unsurprisingly, terrific at embodying so many elements about Chisholm — her faintly Barbadian accent from when she lived on the island as a child, her calculating smile, her fighter spirit and her walk — the story doesn’t allow her to really live inside her emotions.

Despite the actor’s deep dive into Chisholm’s archive, as the BAM audience is told during the film’s introduction, what we ultimately get is a one-dimensional rendering.

(L to R) Amirah Vann and King in a scene from "Shirley."
(L to R) Amirah Vann and King in a scene from “Shirley.”

That’s neither a good example of King’s talent, particularly after her masterful performance in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” nor Ridley’s, though he’s the same filmmaker who penned 2013’s “12 Years A Slave.” (He’d also worked with King before on the fantastic drama series “American Crime,” and it was because of that experience that King, a producer on “Shirley,” handpicked Ridley to helm the film.)

They both have more than proven that they can handle nuanced portrayals. But this is not a full or textured portrait of Chisholm, even during this specific period.

“Shirley,” with a first-name-only title implying the film will be far more personal than it is, teases that it’s a story about a woman with a vaguely tense relationship with her sister, Muriel (Reina King, Regina’s actual sister and a producer as well). It’s a story about a woman whose marriage seems like little more than a professional relationship — a woman whose devoted relationship with her Christianity precludes her from turning her back on her racist opponent, George Wallace (W. Earl Brown), after he’s shot and paralyzed.

“I would break bread with the devil if it made him more Christian,” Chisholm says to Black Panther Huey Newton (Brad James) of her hospital visit with Wallace.

The film drops bread crumbs the whole time that Shirley has an emotional [?] relationship with New York State Assemblyman Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard), who’s also on her team as she runs for nomination. We only learn in the postscript that Chisholm and Hardwick later get married the same year of her divorce from Conrad in 1977.

(L to R) King and Terrence Howard in "Shirley."
(L to R) King and Terrence Howard in “Shirley.”

There’s a collective “aww” when the BAM audience reads this on screen, because Hardwick is portrayed as unconditionally supportive even during Chisholm’s most trying times. It’s indeed sweet. But this tension would have been best served in the body of the film, to better humanize its subject.

There had to be more to the strain between Muriel and Shirley than, as the former finally says in the film, their father raising Shirley to be more “special” than her siblings. And more to the problems between Shirley and Conrad than — again, presumably, because the film never really says — her lack of respect for him as her partner. And more to how her faith might have clouded her judgment at times.

“Shirley” feels too timid to disturb the otherwise pristine Jenga tower, revealing all its contents, to its own detriment.

Audiences can only make assumptions about what’s really going on beneath the surface of a character we’re not really trained to know or be curious about outside of her history-making accomplishments. Yes, she was the first Black candidate to run for a major-party nomination for U.S. president. But who was she? What were her fears, her concerns, her desires beyond that?

With education around Black American history still so lacking in the U.S. school system, and racial ignorance as prevalent as ever, film has become a de facto medium to teach people about the successes and stories of Black people.

Even with a nearly 2-hour runtime, "Shirley" never really lets the audience into the woman behind the headlines.
Even with a nearly 2-hour runtime, “Shirley” never really lets the audience into the woman behind the headlines.

But in doing so, storytellers can be quick to leapfrog over any potentially prickly or uncomfortable aspects of their narratives, focusing squarely on what made this Great Historical Black Figure so important — and neglecting the fact that they were also human. That’s what happens in “Shirley.”

We’ve see the same thing in other recent fare, like Colman Domingo’s portrayal of Bayard Rustin in “Rustin” last year and Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Bob Marley in “Bob Marley: One Love” just last month. They’re complex figures reduced to the sum of their achievements for the big screen. That’s not great storytelling or a good way to teach history, if that’s what they’re trying to do.

At no point in “Shirley” or in any of those examples does the audience feel challenged by this portrayal of the subject in the way that something like, say, last year’s “Oppenheimer” does, or the 1992 biopic, “Malcolm X.” Heroes remain unquestionably heroic. The villain — in the case of “Shirley,” sexism, racism and dirty politics — is abundantly clear. (Or not clear at all, as is the case in “One Love.”)

These aren’t the films any of these figures deserve, and yet Hollywood too often still feels bound, in part by the laws of respectability politics, perhaps, to these noble representations of Black historical figures. “Shirley” had all the potential to be something better. But it isn’t.

“Shirley” releases on Netflix Friday.

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