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Fight for equal rights

Fight for equal rights


Film: Shirley

Director: John Ridley

Cast: Regina King, Lance Reddick, Terrence Howard, Lucas Hedges, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christina Jackson and Michael Cherrie

Nonika Singh

There are winners and then there are catalysts. And here was a woman who wanted ‘nothing more nothing less than be a catalyst for change.’ Shirley Chishlom, the first black woman to run for US Presidency, is hailed by many as a game changer in the realm of equal rights.

Indeed, while we all love underdog stories, making one on a person who didn’t finally make it to the top position in the world’s largest democracy is an onerous task. Writer director John Ridley does rise to the challenge. But then she had many firsts to her credit. In 1968, she became the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress and was the only woman in the first-year class that year.

Lest we forgot, it’s not the Obama days of the US. The year is early 1970s when blacks were not so well represented and black women in particular as Shirley pointed out ‘faced double discrimination’.

Yet, she was not content with just being in the Congress and decided to put her hat into the Presidential ring. Her act was seen by many as audacious and by some, including her sister, as a crazy one. But this school teacher-turned-Congress woman had the dare if not the numbers. Or, the money. Much of the drama centres on her underfunded campaign which hit many a roadblock. Since, she did not emerge as a serious contender, there wasn’t much to rejoice and root for.

The one shining ray of light is how she won the right to be included in television debates after she filed a case against the pillars of fourth estate. Prior to this the television channels did not even consider her a contender worth paying attention to. Of course, Oscar winner Regina King has all our attention as she nails the tough as nails Shirley Chisholm who does not believe in words such as ‘can’t.’ Casting is near perfect and resemblance to real life characters uncanny. Regina’s transformation, physical and otherwise is impeccable. Besides Regina more than one actor impresses. Especially notable is Lance Reddick as Wesley McDonald, her adviser, whose slight nod of the head says it all. Christina Jackson as Barbara Lee and Lucas Hedges as Robert Gottlieb her national student coordinator, bring youthful energy. Michael Cherrie as Conrad Chisholm is understated and reveals both the pride and the hurt of the man who has to be her shadow figuratively and otherwise.

Writing too is sharp and we get gems like, ‘men are so used to being in control that equality to them feels like chaos.’ And then, there is ‘humility in successful people comes off as its own kind of arrogance’. Her campaign slogan Unbought and Unbossed, also the name of her book, does not get enough play, probably for there is a documentary on her by the same name. Ridley tries to infuse dynamism through some other factual incidents like her meeting with Chairman of Black Panthers Party who agrees to endorse her. Going against the popular sentiment and advice of her team, she visits the racist Alabama Governor George Wallace in a hospital after he survives an attack.

Where the film falters is how the rough edges in her family life are easily smoothened. Her conflict with her seemingly supportive husband is left hanging and it’s only the end credits which tell us that she finally did divorce him to marry her fundraiser Arthur Hardwick. Reconciliation with her sister too does not have the necessary emotional heft. But we do see her bonding with those who came on board and supported her all the way in her Presidential race.

While the biographical film is not as rousing as it ought to be, there are many shades of this woman of substance, who was included in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In more recent times, her legacy has been revisited, but as the song by Samara Joy goes, Shirley always knew ‘I know why I am here.’ Streaming on Netflix, check it out if political history piques your interest or if you care for being introduced to relatively lesser known yet no less gritty woman who paved the way for many more to follow suit.