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'Shirley' Review

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March 16, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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There are 435 members of The United States of Representatives. In 1968, only 11 were women, 5 were black, and none were black women. It’s a sobering fact that opens writer/director John Ridley’s biopic of Shirley Chisholm, who was the first person to break the barrier of entry for black women in Congress. The very next scene sees her standing in a sea of middle-aged white men as they’re gathered for the freshman congresspeople class photo. Except it’s glaringly obvious that the capital background is a greenscreen (a very shoddy one), and everything is overlit and washed out. And that scene gets repeated throughout the next two hours: good intentions canceled out by poor filmmaking and an overly basic approach to one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.

To give credit where it is due, Ridley doesn’t give us the clichéd knee-deep full breadth of Shirley’s life, instead focusing on her 1972 campaign for the presidency, the first undertaken by a black candidate as part of a major party. Throughout the eighteen months leading up to the Democratic Party primary, Shirley campaigned as part of the working class, free of the political strings and corporate greed that perpetually hamper the democratic process. Regina King is electric throughout her several campaign stops, supplying the necessary fire to convey Shirley’s trailblazing nature. She’s a person who hates the word “can’t” and never backs down from a fight. From her personality, we get a glimpse of who she was as a politician and what she may have accomplished. Ridley doesn’t bother with those details, although it would have been nice to learn a little more since her presidential campaign hardly tells the whole story.

Vague biopics have gotten by before, mostly because they had the personality to fill in the gaps. The recent duology of Jackie and Spencer by Pablo Larraín, I’m Not There, and The End of the Tour would fit under this category. Ridley semi-accomplished this with his 2013 Jimi Hendrix biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side, offering an under-the-hood inspection of Hendrix before his superstardom. Shirley ditches all that to be as palatable as possible, complete with politicians made so cartoonishly prejudiced that they’re lined up like bowling pins for King to knock down in an Oscar clip. Sure, Chisholm definitely faced stiff opposition from unsavory figures (a.k.a. white men), but seeing it here so sanitized takes away from the reality of the situation.

King is at least surrounded by a decent supporting cast, most notably Lance Reddick in one of his final roles as Shirley's longtime advisor Mac Holder. Michael Cherrie surprises Shirley’s longtime husband Conrad. But then there’s also Terrence Howard and Lucas Hedges in wasted roles that offer them little to do.

“Better get it used and cheap” is what Shirley tells Conrad when he says he needs a new camera. It’s a nice and tidy bit of writing from Ridley, yet it seems he took it to heart and used it as his mantra for the entire production. With Ridley’s Oscar-winning skills as a writer and Netflix’s deep pockets, it’s deeply disappointing that neither of them could muster up what Shirley Chisholm deserved.

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