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‘Shirley’ review: Regina King shines in Netflix’s Shirley Chisholm biopic

By Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times
Published: March 31, 2024, 6:07am

She was, according to her motto (and the title of her autobiography), “unbought and unbossed.” Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, was an American hero; it’s right that we see her, in the opening scenes of the engrossing Netflix biopic “Shirley,” wearing a cape. She made a career out of breaking down doors, refusing to fall in line and accept the status quo, reminding people that change was possible. In 1968, when Chisholm was first elected to the House of Representatives, there were 435 members: 11 were women, five were Black men, and none were Black women. Now there are more than two dozen — including Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who we see in “Shirley” as a young activist and protege of Chisholm’s. She’s played by Christina Jackson but makes an appearance at the end of the film as herself — a moving reminder of progress and time.

“Shirley,” starring Regina King in the title role, focuses almost entirely on a few months in 1972, when Chisholm made her historic run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party — the first woman and first Black person to do so. I found myself wishing that “Shirley” gave us a little more of the pre-politics Chisholm (she was in her 40s when first elected to Congress, and her past work as a teacher is barely mentioned in the film). But what we do get is fascinating: a series of moments in history between Chisholm, her staff, her opponents (there’s a remarkable scene, not invented for the film, in which Chisholm visits the segregationist George Wallace in the hospital and prays with him) and her family. Chisholm’s personal relationships get somewhat short shrift — the change of heart by Shirley’s initially disapproving sister (played by King’s real-life sister Reina King, who’s also a producer of the film) feels a bit rushed, and Chisholm’s marriage is likewise not examined. But the film, directed by John Ridley, takes the time to let real-person details emerge (Chisholm, apparently, loved McDonald’s food), and to get to know the woman at its center.

Regina King, also a producer of the film, is an inspired choice for the role, and her Shirley is made up of endless strength, kindness and courage. King lets us see the weariness that comes with being the person going first, and the fear that comes late at night, staring alone into a hotel mirror, her gaze becoming ever more intent. And she lights up particularly around young people, inspiring them — like Lee, or her college-age youth coordinator Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges) — to try what seems impossible, to make change from within, to hear her words of wisdom: “You just don’t have to accept things as they are.”


‘SHIRLEY’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: PG-13 (for strong language including racial slurs, brief violence and some smoking)

Running time: 1:55

How to watch: Netflix

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