When A Bajan Teacher-Woman Ran For President Of US.

Image: Public domain. Shirley Chisholm ran for president of the US in 1972. She was the first black person to run for that office.
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Born in Brooklyn and raised in Barbados, Shirley Chisholm, who was of Barbadian and Guyanese descent returned  to the New York area at the age of 9 and didn’t look back.

She was the first black woman to be elected to Congress and to run for President of the US.

Now there is a Netflix movie about her life, starring Regina King and called, simply, Shirley,  so is it any good?

Shirley Chisholm may have been the first Black congresswoman in the United States, and the first one to mount a history-making campaign to become its president, but at no point in the film Shirley do we see moments of doubt or indecision plague her.

The film opens with Chisholm having already won her seat in the House of Representatives, one of the few specks of colour in a sea of white faces.

We don’t see the crucial moments preceding this election, like the political awakening that led a Brooklyn schoolteacher on the path to becoming a Democratic candidate.

The movie, instead focuses on is what came after: Chisholm’s 1972 campaign to become president, making her the first woman to ever run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Flanked by her husband Conrad (played with a quiet precision by Michael Cherrie) and a trio of advisors — Wesley ‘Mac’ Holder (showcasing the regal dignity of Lance Reddick in one of his last performances), fundraiser Arthur Hardwick (an underutilised Terrence Howard) and budding white lawyer Robert Gottlieb (played affectingly by Lucas Hedges in an affirming illustration of allyship) — Chisholm goes for the jugular.

Coiffed in her trademark sculptural bouffant and speaking in Bajan-accented English, Regina King plays Chisholm with a steely boldness that never abates and a disarming frankness bordering on naivety, that is especially pronounced compared to the wily machinations of those around her.

Chisholm refuses to doctor or dilute her message regardless of where in America she is, and her popularity rises meteorically as she articulates a collective vision for everyone regardless of their race, colour, creed or sex.

The early 70s of Chisholm’s presidential run is magnificently evoked. The Vietnam War has its staunch opponents, President Nixon’s popularity is ebbing, the divisive practice of desegregation busing is rife, and the election for which Chisholm is seeking a presidential nomination is the first one where people aged between 18 and 21 can vote.

In real life, Chisholm knew the nomination was a longshot, but hoped she could amass enough delegates to force presumptive nominee George McGovern to act in the interest of the coalition that supported her, according to Zinga A. Fraser, the director of the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College and a historical advisor on Shirley.

And as the Watergate scandal started to unfold, Chisholm grew to believe Nixon shouldn’t win another term in office, blaming him, in her autobiography, for “nearly every one of the deep-seated and tragic flaws of this society.”

History shows us the change Chisholm was seeking didn’t materialise in 1972, and is yet to be achieved some 52 years later. But it wasn’t for naught. Chisholm continued to champion social reforms and empower those around her and those who came after her. As King utters emphatically, “We had something, maybe just for a second.”

Archival footage is interspersed throughout the film — often a damning indictment of the uphill battle Chisholm was fighting. Notable is the clip of Gloria Steinem backing her, but saying competitor George McGovern is the “best white male candidate” in the running for the Democratic nomination.

Ramsey Nickell’s camera work is striking in its fixation on specificities — a riposte to the film’s broad brushstrokes.

In the aftermath of Chisholm almost being stabbed by a crazed racist, the camera zeroes in on her hands firmly intertwined in anxiety.

When she visits arch-segregationist governor George Wallace in hospital after he’s been shot, her hands are clasped with his; even though they have opposing viewpoints, they are both faced with the perils of being a public figure.

Shirley shines when the focus is on the particularities of Chisholm’s life. There are the fissures of her marriage to a man who’s relegated to being her shadow; the cracks in her relationship with her sister (played by King’s real-life sister Reina), which stand in stark contrast to the adoration Chisholm garners from her fanbase; her appeals to young Black women who see voting as a bourgeois exercise — one that’s traditionally excluded them from having a seat at the table; and the sexism she faces from Black men as much as white men, which finds its nexus in the supercilious delegate Walter Fauntroy (a charismatic André Holland).

Chisholm’s race to amass enough delegates at the Democratic National Convention to win the party’s nomination for president lends the film much of its urgency. But by homing in on the backroom politicking, in-fighting, tactical decisions and fraught practice of preferencing, the film risks becoming too granular, with a staid script that falters in key moments. Crucial moments like the Black Panthers’ eventual endorsement of Chisholm feel rushed.

It’s a mammoth task to capture the essence of a larger-than-life historic figure like Shirley Chisholm in two hours.

By focusing on a slice of Chisholm’s legacy, Shirley could have functioned as an archetypical figure of what it was to be a Black woman in politics in her time.

Instead, it’s a rather mechanical retelling of a near-historic achievement, one that doesn’t delve deeply into the character of the woman at the centre of it all.

In that respect it might be a bit like the recent Bob Marley, film, but without the music.

Source: Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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