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Shirley Review

by Daniel Reynolds
2.5 out of 5.0 stars

While its creation didn’t necessarily start with Netflix, it’s worth noting that the streaming giant continues to produce “political” films like Shirley. As with the recent Oscar-nominated Rustin, there’s an apparent market for films on lesser-known figures from recent American history (be they Black or, gasp, even vaguely radical). Not to be cynical here, but it’s hard not to consider this framing while watching writer-director John Ridley’s film.

Brought to life by Regina King, Shirley considers the political life of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected into the U.S. Congress—and the first woman to run officially for the Presidency (in 1972). That distinction is important: in Ridley’s film, the American political system consists only of its elected bodies and is determined entirely by who votes. King’s Chisholm makes that point repeatedly as we watch her assert herself in Washington D.C. before pivoting to her idealistic albeit quixotic run for the White House. In this, the film’s narrative is winsome as it maps the particulars of Shirley’s campaign operations, her team coming together in support (including Lance Reddick in his final performance), and the highs and lows we know are sure to follow. It’s also thanks to King at the film’s centre, whose performance is indeed a solid impersonation, but also a heartfelt tribute. This is a great actress making sure to grant a significant historical figure her real-life dimensions, regardless of the film around her. There’s a value to that, especially if (or when) our cultural memory starts to fade.

After watching Shirley though, and without Googling it, would we be able to describe Chisholm’s actual political beliefs? There are a few nods to her principles, thanks to a showdown with George Wallace (W. Earl Brown), but what’s there is minimal. Ridley chooses instead to focus on process, on how someone works within the circumscribed system of American politics as it is. Ultimately, that’s a funny note to land on: isn’t this the woman who wanted to challenge things as they are?

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