Shirley (2024)

Shirley Review


To start this review, allow me to do something I rarely do: criticize a filmmaker. John Ridley, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, is not a good director. And I say that because he’s never made a good movie as a director all of which are based on his own perfectly fine screenplays. Unfortunately, this thought came to mind during our screening of Shirley, Regina King’s long-gestating biopic about trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of movie this might have been if King who has passionately shepherded it for years had directed it with the same energy and style she brought to One Night in Miami. It could have been a film worthy of the fearless Chisholm herself.

Alas, Shirley is fairly typical and reminds me another recent Netflix movie about an important Black figure in political and civil rights history. That would be Rustin, which earned Colman Domingo an Oscar nomination but was otherwise just sort of there. So is Shirley. King turns in a fiery performance as Chisholm, but when all is said and done we know very little about what makes her tick or why she became such an unstoppable political force for good. It’s frustrating; you may find yourself looking her up on Wikipedia afterward.

Given all the things Chisholm accomplished in her life being the first Black woman elected to Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms it makes sense that Ridley would choose to focus on perhaps her greatest feat: her historic 1972 Presidential campaign. Shirley begins in 1968 after Chisholm’s congressional victory (shot with drab colors that instantly make the film look dated in a bad way) and right away shows us that she’s someone who does things differently. It’s time for the freshman class photo on Capitol Hill, and Chisholm is being hustled by her husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie), camera always at the ready. But she’s moving on her time, finishing her drink first. Then she elbows her way to the center of the shot, surrounded by dozens of old white men whose faces range from welcoming to disgusted.

When leaders in the feminist movement and other Florida women raise enough money to put Chisholm on the presidential primary ballot, she can’t say no but if she’s going to do it, she has to bring people in close. It’s a bittersweet pleasure seeing one more turn from the late Lance Reddick as her mentor “Mac” Davis, with whom she shares a complicated past; Lucas Hedges as attorney Robert Gottlieb, who becomes her youth coordinator; Terrence Howard (drawing jeers and swoons alike at our screening) as chief fundraiser Arthur Hardwick Jr., while Conrad works for the campaign also in a security role that keeps him frequently butting heads with his wife.

Regina King plays the best parts of Shirley, which gives her the most room to show us why Chisholm was someone to be respected, trusted, and feared. Her first day has her butting heads with the Speaker of the House over committee assignments (Agriculture board isn’t her thing), humbling a colleague who doesn’t believe she makes as much money as him because she’s a Black woman, and inspiring future Congresswoman Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), a reluctant believer in the cause.

Ridley does go through some familiar biopic motions, with some intriguing choices sprinkled throughout to keep things interesting. The occasional overlong musical riff definitely breaks things up, but it wouldn’t be so bad if they were more regular. There’s not much Ridley can do about this movie feeling very restrained it’s confined by genre conventions that Chisholm would’ve never stood for.

Still though: King is strong. She captures the cadence of the Barbados native and matriarchal spirit of the former schoolteacher well. Chisholm is a tough nut to crack — we see that in one of the film’s most devastating scenes when a failed assassination attempt forces her to confront Conrad about his whereabouts. She builds relationships with other Black politicians but finds that building a coalition is hard, treacherous work. But honestly? We don’t learn much about Chisholm here. It’s amazing that just one episode of Hulu miniseries Mrs. America centered around her reveals so much more.

None of this has any punch behind it. In what should’ve been a powerhouse moment, Chisholm goes to actress Diahann Carroll’s home (Amirah Vann) who has set up a meeting between Black Panther Party leader Huey P Newton (Brad James), in what she calls a marriage between “thunder and lightning.” The scene falls flat here though. Like too much of Shirley, there’s no thunder or lightning just a quiet rain. And Shirley Chisholm was never known for staying quiet.

Watch Shirley For Free On Gomovies.

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