Shirley (2024, dir. John Ridley)

by | Mar 25, 2024

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 117 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 22 March 2024


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WHO’S IN SHIRLEY?

Regina King, Lance Reddick, Terrence Howard, Lucas Hedges, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christina Jackson, Michael Cherrie, André Holland, Dorian Missick, Amirah Vann, W. Earl Brown, Brad James, Reina King

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

John Ridley (director, writer, producer), Elizabeth Haggard, Regina King, Reina King and Anikah McLaren (producers), Tamar-kali (composer), Ramsey Nickell (cinematographer), JoAnne Yarrow (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 1972, trailblazing Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (King) runs for President…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON SHIRLEY?

For the second time in two years, and within months of the last one, Netflix has released a timely and slightly awards-baiting biopic about an unsung Black political hero in 20th century America – both of them, funnily enough, of roughly the same quality. That isn’t to say that either last year’s Rustin or this year’s Shirley, the latter coming from writer-director John Ridley, are terrible, or even bad. Rather, they simply share more or less the same strengths and weaknesses as one another, to where it almost feels like both were cut from the same reliable formula that emphasises the importance of their respective historical figures, without getting too deep into what made them who they turned out to be.

Of course, Shirley does things a little differently than Rustin, but not to where it’s substantially that much different from the Colman Domingo vehicle, and both films – most notably Shirley – fit all too neatly into that category of biopics with nobility to spare, but a noticeable slightness in other departments.

The film focuses on events between 1971 and 1972, when Barbadian-American politician Shirley Chisholm (Regina King) – who by this point has already made history as the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress – decides that she has enough goodwill and support to make a run for President, marking the first time that any Black candidate from a major political party would vie for the nomination. Shirley soon enlists her advisors Wesley McDonald Holder (Lance Reddick) and Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard), along with her dutiful husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie) and young former intern Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges), as fundraisers and youth coordinators for her campaign, which at first makes promising signs as she makes her stand across several states. Soon, though, she runs into all sorts of roadblocks including dwindling support among voters who cannot accept a Black female candidate, and an eventual ruckus surrounding the number of delegates needed to secure a spot on the final Democratic ballot.

While it doesn’t necessarily take a historian to know exactly how Shirley Chisholm’s Presidential run ultimately ends (though as it would transpire, the 1972 election would end disastrously for the Democratic Party anyway), but even with its attempts to infuse some dramatic tension into the whirlwind campaign she embarks on, the film remains fruitless in its attempts to properly dive into the core beliefs behind it all. As in Rustin, the main character’s intentions are certainly made loud and clear, but Ridley’s script doesn’t dig deep enough into what exactly is driving his interpretation of Shirley Chisholm (besides, of course, all the racially-motivated hatred in parts of her country), thereby unintentionally presenting her as someone who’s all talk but without much to actually say. His direction is somewhat reserved, and littered with some odd editing choices, which further bar the viewer from being invited further inside her mindset, beyond the meaningful conversations that she shares with other characters, who look up to her like she’s the most important person in the world (a common trait in most political biopics similar to this one, regardless of their political leaning).

It is ultimately, again like in Rustin, down to its lead actor to give the film its sense of power. Regina King delivers a warm and fierce performance as Shirley Chisholm, a role that almost seems tailor-made for the Oscar-winning actor (she is also a producer on the film, further solidifying her ultimate connection with the material), and she delivers as much emotion as she can in the part, to where it can be genuinely moving to watch at times. King leans considerably into Chisholm’s motivated, never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude that drives the charm that gravitates several people towards her, but the actor also shows how easily this character can slip into delusion, especially later on when it becomes clearer and clearer that the White House is a mere fantasy for her and her team. There are some upsetting scenes she has with her husband, who – thanks to an understated turn by actor Michael Cherrie – earns a fair amount of sympathy as he is constantly left to question his integrity and manhood after years of loyalty to his harder-working wife, which once again King does not hold back on in an ultimately strong-willed turn.

Everything I’ve just mentioned about Shirley is roughly the same as what I remember saying about Rustin back in November. Both movies pretty much follow the same formula that Netflix appears to apply toward its weighty political biopics, including how the storytelling has a number of holes that are ultimately filled by the powerful turn of its lead performer, and ultimately feel like overly safe portrayals of the real-life subjects that lack the gravitas and sense of importance that their legacies imply. It’s not exactly a bad formula, for it does allow these stories to be told as accessibly as possible, but it is a formula nonetheless, and it’s only a matter of time before it runs out of space to get away with doing the same thing over and over again.

I don’t know what the next political biopic Netflix has lined up, but if it also features a strong lead performance amidst so-so storytelling, then I’ll know for sure what the real problem is.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Shirley is a well-meaning political biopic that features a strong central performance by Regina King, but a reliance on the same formula as Netflix’s similarly safe Rustin ultimately renders it unmemorable.

Three out of five stars

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