Review: Regina King Returns in a Powerhouse Performance as First Black Congresswoman in Shirley

We haven’t seen Regina King on screen (big or small) in nearly two-and-a-half years, when she starred in the excellent Western The Harder They Fall. And with what she has been through in that time, her absence is hardly a surprise (I’d rather not get into the details, but feel free to look it up). But to have her come back, not only in a film that she’s been trying to get made for about a decade, but also in a performance that seems shot out of a cannon, fueled by the pent-up frustration that the name Shirley Chisholm isn’t better known in today’s world, is more than we had any right to hope for. Shirley tells the story of both the first Black congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for President of the United States, in a campaign that may have been doomed to fail but also, in the process, scared and gave notice to a lot of the right people.

Written and directed by Oscar-winning writer John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the film picks up Chisholm’s story in 1969, right as she wins her House seat as a representative from New York. Almost immediately, she begins to raise funds to make what would become a trailblazing presidential campaign in the 1972 election. With her loyal husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie) by her side, she pulled together an all-star team of friends, admirers, and those who simply thought it was time a woman took a boundary-breaking stab at this boys' club of an executive office. On hand are men like Wesley McDonald Holder (the late Lance Reddick, still killing it); Arthur Hardwick (Terrence Howard); Stanley Townsend (Brian Stokes Mitchell), who ends up quitting on her mid-campaign; and even a young, white former intern, Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges).

One of the more interesting people helping out in the campaign is a then-college student and single mother Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), who begins feeling fairly jaded about politics in general (she says she doesn’t even vote) until Chisholm shows her a clear path to making a difference. Today, Lee has been a representative from California since 1990.

Chisholm’s mission shifts from winning the race to collecting enough delegates to at least be a powerful voting block during the Democratic convention, so we watch her maneuver through the system, meeting with the likes of another Black candidate Walter Fauntroy (André Holland), and Black Panther leader Huey Newton (Brad James) at the home of actor Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann). And then there's her controversial bedside visit with Alabama Governor George Wallace (W. Earl Brown) after he was shot several times in an assassination attempt. He and Chisholm were sworn enemies, but having survived an attempt on her life as well, Chisholm felt for the man and let him know she was praying for him. After that act of kindness, Wallace supported some of her efforts in the south going forward, so perhaps Chisholm knew what she was doing after all.

But the film revolves around King’s powerhouse performance as a candidate who still believes that she can truly represent all sides in America. When we hear politicians today say that they intend to embrace both sides of the aisle or all sides of their constituency, we don’t believe them. But Chisholm comes across as honest on this point, and the reason Shirley resonates so clear and loud right now is because there simply aren’t any public servants like her making a real run for any office. I’m sure they’re out there, but they are being squashed and silenced by those who simply scream louder and kowtow to the most extreme views.

As inspiring as the film can be, it may also result in feelings of frustration, which is an understandable reaction. The timing for this movie couldn’t be more perfect, as both an educational tool and a reminder of what civic duty looks like in its purest form.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.