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Review: Shirley (2024)

Shirley (2024)

Directed by: John Ridley

Premise: A biographical drama about Shirley Chisholm (Regina King), a United States Congresswoman who ran for president in 1972.

What Works: Shirley is a political drama and it approaches the politics in a mostly clear-eyed way. Although Chisholm is held up as an inspirational figure, the moviemakers acknowledge the compromise inherent in politics and the transactional nature of political relationships. This film is a depiction of idealistic individuals trying to get things done within an imperfect system. Shirley’s inspirational qualities are grounded and possess maturity and wisdom; the ending is uplifting despite Chisholm’s loss because the film’s investment is in the willingness to do the work and to challenge an intolerable status quo. In that respect, the filmmakers of Shirley demonstrate an understanding of Chisholm and her legacy. Shirley has some good casting, namely Regina King in the title role and Michael Cherrie as Conrad Chisholm.

What Doesn’t: The filmmakers of Shirley unsuccessfully mix analog and digital elements. The picture takes place in 1972 and care is taken to recreate the era in the costuming and set design. However, Shirley was shot digitally and includes very obvious digital enhancements; it often looks like a contemporary movie and the clean digital image tends to make the period detail look artificial. Shirley Chisholm’s run for president has a lot of fascinating details and the filmmakers include as many as they can. This causes the film to play episodically with individual pieces isolated from the whole and important events grazed over. Chisholm’s relationship with George Wallace and his supporters is especially truncated. The filmmakers are so determined to make Shirley Chisholm into an inspiring figure that they shy away from any character flaws. This isn’t quite a hagiography but Chisholm always does the right thing. Most other people are thinly characterized; there isn’t much for them to do. Shirley risks overstating Chisholm’s legacy. Her bid for the presidency didn’t work out. She didn’t get the nomination and Chisholm was determined to stop Richard Nixon from getting reelected and that didn’t happen. The sole focus on her failed bid for the presidency flattens Chisholm’s legacy.

Bottom Line: Shirley is a well-intended picture and it’s well acted. The storytelling struggles to include so many historical details and some of the technical choices don’t look quite right. But Shirley does manage to be mildly inspiring while accounting for the compromise inherent to politics.

Episode: #991 (April 7, 2024)