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“Shirley” Suffers Defeat

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | March 21st, 2024

Shirley (John Ridley, 2024) 2 out of 5 stars

Shirley Chisolm (1924-2005) was a woman of some impressive firsts: the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, in 1968 (representing New York’s 12th congressional district); and both the first African American to run for President via one of the two major parties, in 1972, and first woman to seek the Democratic Party nomination. There’s a great movie about her presidential bid that I heartily recommend, the 2004 documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, from director Shola Lynch. Unfortunately, that is not the film I am about to review.

Instead, here comes Shirley, from writer/director John Ridley (Needle in a Timestack). A well-meaning portrait of the great Mrs. Chisolm, played by Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), the film also heavily features the late Lance Riddick (John Wick: Chapter 4), as well as a slew of other solid actors, including Lucas Hedges (Honey Boy), André Holland (Bones and All), Terrence Howard (The Walk), and Christina Jackson (The Night House). None of them are the problem. It’s the script.

Regina King in SHIRLEY @2023 Glen Wilson/Netflix

A soggy, ponderous journey through the triumphs, missteps, and betrayals of the 1972 campaign, Shirley manages to make its extraordinary lead character somehow less than the sum of her considerable intellectual parts. While we understand why she’s running—well, sort of, anyway—there’s no context for who she is and how she comes to make her momentous decision. She was and remains an inspiration for women, people of color, and all members of marginalized populations, but in this particular telling of her story, Shirley is mostly just out of her depth.

This is not by intentional design. Rather, Ridley can’t figure out which details to prioritize over others. Every scene comes with the same emphasis (or really lack thereof), recalling the self-deprecating harangue of Kirk Douglas’ Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields in Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful after he realizes he should never have taken the reigns of a movie after its director resigned: “I have no tension, no timing, no pace, nothing.” Perhaps Shirley is not quite as bad as all that, but it’s close.

Lucas Hedges in SHIRLEY @2023 Glen Wilson/Netflix

At least we learn the highlights, and gather the gist of what Shirley Chisolm was up against when she took on the establishment. But in a weird way (once more purely by accident), Shirley almost ends up indirectly accusing its protagonist of contributing to the disarray at the Democratic Convention that no doubt helped Richard Nixon trounce his eventual challenger, George McGovern, in the general election. Well done.

When it’s over, what remains is the memory of fine performances. King is her usual excellent self, and the ensemble more than ably supports her. Reddick shines, as he always does. Let’s hope the remaining projects of his that have yet to come out do him better justice.

l-r: Terrence Howard and Lance Reddick in SHIRLEY @2023 Glen Wilson/Netflix

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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