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‘Shirley’ Review: Regina King’s Passion Project Is Solid, But Never Reaches a Fever Pitch

Mere months after dropping “Rustin,” chronicling the life of unsung and openly gay March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, and weeks after the culmination of star Colman Domingo’s Oscar run, Netflix is back in familiar territory with “Shirley,” starring Regina King and produced by her and her sister Reina, taking 15 years to come to fruition.

Like “Rustin,” Shirley Chisholm’s huge presence and contributions have largely gone unacknowledged. Yes, there was Shola Lynch’s remarkable 2004 doc “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed” back in 2004, and Uzo Aduba’s Emmy-winning depiction of her in FX on Hulu’s 2020 limited series “Mrs. America” about the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Still, despite her enduring impact she hadn’t received the full biopic treatment until now.

Though born in Brooklyn to Caribbean immigrants from Barbados and Guyana, Chisholm spent some of her early childhood years in Barbados. An excellent student in high school, as well as in college, the Brooklyn native began her career in early childhood education as a daycare aide and teacher prior to completing her master’s degree and rising to a daycare director and educational consultant. She entered politics at the grassroots level, supporting male candidates while also expanding female participation.

In the 1960s, she became the second Black person elected to the New York State Assembly and the first Black woman elected to Congress. “Shirley” doesn’t delve deep into that backstory, though it is referenced often. Instead, it centers on Chisholm’s bold 1972 bid for President of the United States, making her the first Black candidate to seek a major-party presidential nomination, and the first woman of any race to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Whether motivated by a limited budget or the endless narrative possibilities of Chisholm’s incredible life, writer/director and Oscar winner John Ridley keeps this story tightly focused on Chisholm, her husband Conrad Chisholm (Michael Cherrie), mentor/advisor Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder (another solid performance from the beloved, gone-too-soon actor Lance Reddick), advisor/fundraiser Arthur Hardwick (Terrence Howard) and a young Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson, “Swagger”) prior to becoming a Congresswoman herself, with other notable additions along the way. Her youth voter coordinator Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea” is the only central non-Black member of her team,

A woman running for president is still a difficult journey in 2024, so “Shirley” pinpointing how implausible it seemed in 1972, especially for a Black woman, will be eye-opening even as a Black woman serves as our nation’s Vice President. That implausibility is underscored by her many challenges, including being left out of presidential debates and severe underfunding. How Chisholm meets those challenges illustrates her political savvy. By not shying away from her personal difficulties, particularly with her sister Muriel St. Hill, played by King’s sister Reina, and her husband Conrad, “Shirley” also gives insight into the huge personal cost to her ambition.

Not knowing who she can trust, particularly through her dealings with congressman and fellow presidential candidate Walter Fauntroy (another brief, but impressive performance from Andre Holland), who will protect her after a threat on her life and being underestimated by her political strategist/campaign manager Stanley Thompson (a convincingly exasperated performance from Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell) for not wheeling and dealing like men, not to mention a surprising betrayal by a trusted colleague she never saw coming.

Her unlikely friendship with fellow Democratic presidential candidate, and notoriously pro-segregationist, Alabama Governor George Wallace (W. Earl Brown) and other surprising alliances and affiliations offers additional intrigue. King’s performance is a carefully crafted one expected from an Oscar and four-time Emmy winner. Not only does she don Chisholm’s clothes, adopt her hairstyle, recreate her distinctive smile, and attempt her Bajan-tinged accent, she digs at the core of who Chisholm was in that moment—principled and fearless. That King did so after tragically losing her son Ian, her only child, to whom the film is dedicated, is even more admirable.

As Arthur Hardwick, Howard is far more subdued than his famous roles as DJay in “Hustle & Flow,” Lucious in “Empire” and Quentin in “The Best Man” franchise. Once the credits roll, with a surprising personal revelation with him and Chisholm, his performance becomes even more impactful and appreciated. Even in an often distracting wig, Dorian Missick lends heart to legendary congressman and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums; Amirah Vann (“How To Get Away with Murder,” “Queen Sugar”) delights as Diahann Carroll, while Brad James stretches as Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Despite solid performances and a focus on a lot of the right moments, “Shirley” just never rises to a fever pitch. Perhaps it’s because Ridley, who began chatting with the King sisters about the film during his and Regina’s “American Crime” days, holds back too much. While audiences will walk away with an appreciation of how Chisholm helped put an end to California’s winner-takes-all presidential primary protocol, helping both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama secure their Democratic presidential nominations, and learn just how close she came to making a real power play in 1972, they won’t jump up and cheer her on.

And while “Shirley” is no “Rustin,” cinematically, Chisholm, like Bayard Rustin, more than deserves her flowers. In interviews, the King sisters have shared their intention in bringing greater visibility to Chisholm’s importance to all Americans. On that front, “Shirley” fulfills their mission, just in time for Women’s History Month too.

“Shirley” is streaming now on Netflix.

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