Netflix’s Shirley Review | Regina King Uplifts Rote Biopic

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The 1972 Democratic presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm is the focus of writer/director John Ridley’s biopic, Shirley. Oscar-winner Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) delivers a commanding performance in the Netflix drama that shines the spotlight on one of the most dynamic and fiercely ambitious political trailblazers from the late 1960s, ’70s, and beyond. At the time, Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968, was considered an outsider. She entered Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district, without much party support and often stood out with her “churchgoing” attire and outspokenness. The idea of a presidential run may have surprised even her, but once Chisholm took hold of the idea, there was no stopping the woman.




John Ridley keeps the pace steady throughout Shirley but opts for a more straightforward approach to telling this story. Chisholm’s fierce determination and drive are the main throughline here, with occasional asides designed to explore deeper emotions or familial interactions to give audiences a glimpse of who Chisholm was outside of politics. But Ridley never stays in those areas long enough for us to fully understand the drive and passion behind Chisholm’s pursuits.

Human beings typically have at least one or two moments in their lives that act as a significant catalyst — a life event, an aha moment, or something of that ilk that sends them along their path or destiny, good or bad. Shirley is missing that and, as a result, becomes entirely too one-note. Bottom line: You’re here for Regina King’s powerful performance and to learn more about a fascinating woman who stood out among a sea of middle-aged white males. And maybe that’s enough.



Good but by the Book

Regina King as Shirley in the Shirley poster

Shirley (2024)

3/5

Release Date
March 22, 2024

Pros

  • Regina King is fantastic in the titular role, delivering an outstanding performance.
  • The film is still relevant to the politics and problems of today.
Cons

  • The film was too often one note and could have used deeper character development.
  • Shirley may have worked better as a limited series, giving crucial plot points more time to breathe.

One shouldn’t dismiss Shirley entirely. It has the same creative flavor as Rustin, which illuminated another underdog, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. (And let’s be honest: Colman Domingo arguably deserved the Oscar). Rustin would have benefitted from deeper character development, too. However, both biopics should be savored for what they offer: A glimpse back in time as a way to bring better context to the injustices still playing out today.


Ultimately, general moviegoing audiences want to feel several things after everything fades to black. They want to be entertained and perhaps feel like they’ve learned or experienced something new. Shirley delivers on that front, although we would have loved to see this as a limited series, at least because there is so much to explore and so many change agents — Barbara Lee, Gloria Steinem, and Bella Abzug, to note a few — who factor into Chisholm’s success, or lack thereof.

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Shirley begins with fervor. Upon learning that she’s been assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, Chisholm confronts the speaker of the house, asserting herself and stirring the pot. Newbies never pushed back on assignments, but Chisholm, outspoken and determined to make a difference in her district, broke the mold. The film quickly moves toward the surprising possibility of Chisholm gaining support to run for president.


Chisholm leans on allies like longtime friend Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder — played by Lance Reddick in one of his final roles — and Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard), a former state legislator. Chisholm’s husband, Conrad (Michael Cherrie), a city official, offers support, but as Chisholm’s campaign gains steam, it begins to fracture their secure structure. There is a dynamic early scene between King and Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird), who plays Robert Gottlieb, an intern who served as a youth coordinator during her presidential campaign. It illuminates Chisholm’s power of persuasion and her disdain for the word “can’t.” These allies proved vital as Chisholm confronted one obstacle after another leading up to the 1972 Democratic Convention.


Why the Actors Elevate This Docudrama

Some of the key talking points in Chisholm’s campaign — and one that Regina King so effectively captures — is the political landscape of the era, the prescribed role given to women, and gender politics. Chisholm is all for making America a haven for all kinds of people, regardless of color, creed, or sex. Some 50 years later, these issues have come full circle, boomeranging back and hitting 2024 on the head. By watching it play out in the past, the film may serve as a warning to what can happen when citizens and trusted politicians stop fighting for justice. If only there didn’t need to be a “fight” for it, another theme Shirley touches on.


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On the acting front, these performers deliver. Regina King brings a fierce sense of determination, vigor, and veracity to Chisolm. She captures the politician to winning ends, from her strawberry shake-toting ease to her refusal to back down. At one point, she tells her team to sue the networks for not allowing her equal time.

In the rare moments when the character is shown exploring deeper personal matters, King infuses those moments with grace. King’s sister, Reina, also stars, playing Ruby St. Hill, Chisholm’s sister. The duo doesn’t share much screen time, but it’s effective when they do, and you realize there’s more to explore about Chisholm’s early life. Once again… perfect for a limited series where certain things could be allowed more time to breathe.


It’s a joy to see Reddick here, a fine performer playing a character who offers context for the audience and Chisholm. Terrence Howard hits his marks, and the character is provided just enough screen time to suggest something deeper occurring between him and Chisholm — years later, the two got married.

Beyond that, the docudrama is slick, sharply executed and intriguing. It may not probe the emotional depths required to fully understand Shirley Chisholm’s deeper motivations, but with Regina King in command, Shirley is worth our attention and yet another opportunity, like Rustin, to understand the complexities of politics and the need — perhaps the requirement — for proactive approaches to assuring freedoms and justice “for all.” Shirley is streaming on Netflix. Watch it below and check out the trailer below.

Watch Shirley


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