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'Shirley' is a celebratory biopic that doesn't end in triumph

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud.

(APPLAUSE)

CHISHOLM: I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I'm equally proud of that.

(APPLAUSE)

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Before Barack Obama, before Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris, there was Shirley Chisholm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHISHOLM: I am the candidate of the people of America.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: Chisholm spoke these words in 1972, when she became the first Black woman to run for president of the United States. At the time, she was the first and only Black woman in Congress, representing Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: There are people in our country's history who don't look left or right, they just look straight ahead. And Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.

DETROW: In 2015, Barack Obama posthumously awarded Chisholm the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognition of a trailblazing career that went largely under-recognized until recently.

REGINA KING: There were so many people who didn't even know her name, so we felt like their story needs to be told. People need to know her name.

DETROW: That's Oscar-winning actress Regina King. She plays Chisholm in a new Netflix movie, simply called "Shirley."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

KING: (As Shirley Chisholm) I have something I want to tell you. I am running for president.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Of the United States? Holy s***.

DETROW: Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign may have ended in defeat, but her legacy looms larger than ever today through biographies, public monuments, politics and, of course, movies. My co-host Ailsa Chang spoke to the star of "Shirley," Regina King, as well as the film's writer and director, John Ridley, about what it took to get the film made and why Chisholm's story still matters.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Regina, I want to start with you because I read that you and your sister Reina, who's in the film as Chisholm's sister, that the two of you were trying to get this film made for, like, 15 years. And it made me think, like, gosh, 15 years ago, Chisholm just didn't have the kind of cultural footprint that she has now. Like, I never heard about Shirley Chisholm in school. I didn't find out about her until well into adulthood, when I was a reporter on the Hill. Can I ask, how did you first learn about Shirley Chisholm?

KING: Well, actually, it's an interesting story because while Reina and I are sisters, we've always gone to different schools because we're four years apart. And during Black History Month, they choose a person each day of February that has made an impact on the world in some way. And I was lucky in my fourth-grade year to have a teacher that Shirley Chisholm was part of her curriculum. And then we, you know, young adults, early 20s, realized that there were so many people who didn't even know her name. So we felt like their story needs to be told. People need to know her name.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, I want to talk about Shirley Chisholm's arrival in Washington, D.C., in 1969, right? First Black woman comes into Congress, representing Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. Can you just tell us, how did her colleagues receive her? How would you describe the reception?

KING: I'll let you take that, John. I would love to hear John with his podcast voice.

(LAUGHTER)

JOHN RIDLEY: So smooth.

KING: Break that down.

CHANG: Yeah. Just set the scene for us, John, you know.

RIDLEY: I think it was a complicated arrival, I mean, certainly for Black people, for women, for the burgeoning Congressional Black Caucus. Those were all really, really good things. I think where it got complicated was people started to realize that she didn't necessarily want to follow the traditional paths where, you know, you come in and essentially, for everybody, you kind of got to wait your turn. And it's about seniority. But for junior representatives and certainly a woman and certainly a woman of color, Shirley could look at that path and go, well, this is going to take too long.

CHANG: She's like, why are you putting me on the agricultural committee?

RIDLEY: Yeah. The agricultural committee was a big deal for her because she was representing Brooklyn, and she thought that there were not sufficient things that she could do for the people that elected her. So Shirley wanted to get to work right away, and that became a pattern. She was going to do it in her time, at her cadence, and that's when she began to upset the applecart a bit.

CHANG: What do you think was harder for Chisholm when she was navigating Washington, racism or misogyny? Because it felt like this movie was making more of a point about how men in Washington treated her, white or Black.

KING: Definitely misogyny.

RIDLEY: Yeah.

KING: Absolutely. I mean, you have to realize, when Shirley was running for Congress, this is at a time when women still needed their husbands to sign for a bank account. It's so - just the audacity for a woman to do what she had done.

CHANG: You used the word audacity, you know, that she had the audacity as a woman to make sure that she was up front and center. You know, she had to basically, it sounds like, train her husband to be the background person in that relationship. She had to convince other men in her life to believe in her. And at one point, I read, Regina, that you were struck by how much of a strategist Shirley Chisholm was. What did you mean by that? Like, how would you describe Chisholm's style as a political strategist?

KING: I just - I feel like every move that she made was intentional. There's a part in the film where Shirley is preparing for her announcement to run for president, and you just see the detail in it from how she's choosing her wigs to what she is planning to say in that announcement.

CHANG: A meticulous orchestration.

KING: I love that - a meticulous orchestration, exactly.

CHANG: You know, also attached to her style was this ability to engage even with people whom she had serious disagreements with, right? Like, it comes out in the way that you depict the dynamic between Chisholm and George Wallace, the former governor of Alabama, who was a segregationist, who also ran against Chisholm for the Democratic nomination for president. I want to play a clip from the movie for you. This is when Wallace is in the hospital after an assassination attempt, and Chisholm pays him a visit, even though her team is like, what are you even doing visiting him?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SHIRLEY")

KING: (As Shirley Chisholm) God is surrounding you. May his light always guide you and keep you safe in his arms. In Jesus' name, amen.

W EARL BROWN: (As George Wallace) Would you keep praying for me, Shirley?

KING: (As Shirley Chisholm) Always have.

CHANG: I was kind of blown away watching that scene. I mean, this actually happened. For one, it's crazy to think that Chisholm and George Wallace even belonged to the same political party. So maybe you want to explain that piece of it. But why was it important for you all to include this scene in the movie?

RIDLEY: I mean, I'll just say, because it was true. I mean...

CHANG: Yeah.

KING: Yeah.

RIDLEY: ...We're in an era where it's just such a political minefield for a politician to have to now cross the aisle and make any kind of a deal. But obviously, back in the day, there were constituents of Shirley's who never in a million years would have accepted her going to see George Wallace. But for Shirley, it was really important that you find commonality and you don't demonize people on the other side. You may disagree. You may think that their political stances are wrong, wrong for people, wrong for the country. But you have to find something in common.

CHANG: But do you think it was purely transactional, or do you think Chisholm tapped into a moral code that transcended politics?

KING: It's one of those moments where both things are working at the same time. And even with Wallace having some views that don't feel like they align with people of color, there is something within Shirley that she did see, as John said, the commonality.

CHANG: She could connect with something inside him, yes.

KING: You know, when you think about that moment happening, and then later on down the line, that they signed on legislation together that allowed for domestic workers to actually receive minimum wage, and that changed the lives of millions of Americans.

CHANG: Regina King is the star of the new film "Shirley" about former U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. The film's writer and director is John Ridley. Thank you both so much for sharing this time with us.

KING: Thank you, Ailsa.

RIDLEY: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Marc Rivers
William Troop
William Troop is a supervising editor at All Things Considered. He works closely with everyone on the ATC team to plan, produce and edit shows 7 days a week. During his 30+ years in public radio, he has worked at NPR, at member station WAMU in Washington, and at The World, the international news program produced at station GBH in Boston. Troop was born in Mexico, to Mexican and Nicaraguan parents. He spent most of his childhood in Italy, where he picked up a passion for soccer that he still nurtures today. He speaks Spanish and Italian fluently, and is always curious to learn just how interconnected we all are.