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‘Shirley’ ticks every box, but Regina King’s performance is simply stupendous

‘Shirley’ ticks every box, but Regina King’s performance is simply stupendous
Regina King as Shirley Chisholm in 'Shirley'. (Photo: Glen Wilson / Netflix © 2023)

The Netflix biopic of the trailblazing black US Congresswoman provides riveting viewing that will stay with fans of the genre for a long time after they watched it.

Four years after her Oscar-winning performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, Regina King returns with a spellbinding performance in Netflix’s Shirley.

King honours Shirley Chisholm by seamlessly slipping into her shoes as she embarked on the daring quest of making history as the first black woman elected to the US Congress and the first black candidate, in 1972, to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Before Kamala Harris, the first woman and first black American vice-president, there was Chisholm.

Originally from Barbados, she was a school teacher in Brooklyn, New York City, who fought fiercely in a space designed exclusively for middle-aged white men and she opened the door for the voices of marginalised groups to speak louder than those who benefited from racism, sexism and black poverty.

Over the years, a number of biopics centred on some of the most significant historical figures of our time have been produced, and Shirley is a remarkable addition to the genre. A movie about her legacy and influence was a long time coming, though, but the wait was definitely worth it.

Writer and director John Ridley, who also scripted the award-winning film 12 Years a Slave, has delivered meaty dialogue, and the detailing of Chisholm’s life and campaign, known as the “Chisholm trail”, is stupendously impressive, supported by footage of real-life figures like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

It is to be expected that Chisholm’s journey would be filled with more thorns than roses but the makers of this film manage to get us emotionally invested in the story as they take us on a whirlwind journey that tossed her to the wolves, yet brought her back leading the pack to show off her resilience and determination, and to revolutionise American politics.

The film also takes a look at Chisholm’s personal life, in which envy poisoned her relationship with her family, and her hunger for a better America strained her marriage to her anxious husband Conrad, played by Michael Cherrie.

Regina King is phenomenal as Shirley Chisholm in ‘Shirley’. (Photo: Glen Wilson / Netflix © 2023)

Shirley

Terrence Howard as Arthur Hardwick Jr in ‘Shirley’. (Photo: Glen Wilson / Netflix © 2023)

The filmmakers tick every box, but it’s King’s performance that the viewer will remember. It is almost too convincing. She spent a lot of time studying Chisholm and manages to move like her, look like her and speak like her.

The hair and make-up team does a phenomenal job of recreating Chisholm and the rest of the cast, including Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder, Shirley’s campaign adviser, played by the late Lance Reddick.

Mentions of some of the great women who inspired Chisholm, such as Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, are appreciated.

And yet, after watching Shirley, it is quite disappointing to realise how little the world has changed since her fight. There has been some progress, but people like her are needed now more than ever to break the cycle of corruption, continuing racism, and the oppression of marginalised groups.

It is always groundbreaking to see women fight for what they believe in because there was once a time when they were only expected to be the shadows of men. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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