Review: ‘Shirley’

Regina King Captures Shirley Chisholm's Trailblazing Spirit In Restrained Biopic She Never Would've Stood For

I’m going to start this review off by doing something I almost never do, and that’s criticizing a filmmaker. John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, is not a very good director. I say that because he’s yet to direct a good movie, despite the screenplays, always written by himself, being perfectly fine. And sadly, I thought about this throughout our screening of Shirley, Regina King’s long-developing biopic on trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm. I kept wondering how good this movie might’ve been if King, who has made this a passion project for years, had directed it with the same verve and spirit that she brought to One Night in Miami.  Certainly, it would’ve amounted to a film more in line with the fearless Chisholm herself.

Sadly, Shirley is pretty standard, and I liken it to another recent Netflix movie about a groundbreaking Black figure in political and civil rights history. That would be Rustin, which earned Colman Domingo an Oscar nomination but the movie itself just sorta lays there. Shirley is much the same. King gives a fiery performance worthy of Chisholm but when all is said and done we know very little about what makes her tick, or why she became the unstoppable political force for good that she was. It’s frustrating and could have you looking her up on Wikipedia after the movie is over.

Given all of Chisholm’s extraordinary accomplishments, like becoming the first Black woman member of Congress and representing the 12th congressional district of New York for seven terms, it makes sense that Ridley would focus on perhaps her most remarkable feat: her historic 1972 Presidential campaign. Shot with a drab color palette that immediately makes the film look archaic in a bad way, Shirley begins in 1968 immediately after Chisholm’s congressional victory. From the start we see she’s someone who does things her own way. It’s time for the congressional freshman class photo, and Chisholm is being rushed by her husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie), camera always at the read. But she’s moving on her own time, finishing her drink first. She then moves her way into the center of the shot, surrounded by dozens of old white men whose faces run the gamut from welcoming to disgusted.

When leaders in the feminist movement and other Florida women raise enough money to put Chisholm onto the presidential primary ballot, she can hardly turn it down. But if she’s going to do it, she has to bring in people close to her. It’s a bittersweet pleasure to get one more performance by the late Lance Reddick, who plays her mentor “Mac” Davis, someone she shares a complicated past with. Lucas Hedges plays attorney Robert Gottlieb who becomes her youth coordinator; Terrence Howard (earning jeers and swoons alike at our screening) plays chief fundraiser Arthur Hardwick Jr., while Conrad is also part of the campaign in a security role…one that keeps him relegated to the background but not out of conflict with his wife.

The best parts of Shirley give Regina King the most room to show us why Chisholm was someone to be respected, trusted, but also feared. From day one she’s butting heads with the Speaker of the House over her committee assignments (Agriculture board isn’t her thing), and humiliating a colleague who refuses to believe that a Black woman is making the same salary as him. We also see how Chisholm inspires future Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), who is a reluctant believer in the cause.

Ridley goes through the motions of a typical biopic, making some curious choices to spruce things up. The occasional overlong musical riff disrupts the flow, and wouldn’t be so bad if they were a regular occurrence. There’s little that Ridley can do to stop the film from feeling very restrained, confined to the kind of genre conventions that Chisholm never would’ve stood for.

King is strong, though, capturing the cadence of the Barbados native and the matriarchal spirit of the former schoolteacher. Chisholm is a tough nut to crack, and we see that in one of the most devastating scenes in the film when a failed assassination attempt forces her to confront Conrad about his whereabouts. Chisholm forges relationships with other Black politicians but finds that building a coalition is difficult, even treacherous work. But the bits about Chisholm that we actually learn are few and far between. It’s amazing to me that a single episode of the Hulu miniseries Mrs. America centered on Chisholm reveals so much more a

There’s just no punch behind any of this. In what should’ve been a powerhouse moment, Chisholm goes to the home of actress Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann) who has set up a meeting with Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton (Brad James) in what she calls a marriage between “thunder and lightning.” The scene falls flat, though. Like too much of Shirley, there’s no thunder or lightning, just a quiet rain. And Shirley Chisholm was not someone known for staying quiet.

Shirley streams on Netflix beginning March 22nd.


Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-shirley-2I'm going to start this review off by doing something I almost never do, and that's criticizing a filmmaker. John Ridley, Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, is not a very good director. I say that because he's yet to direct a good...