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Shirley movie review & film summary (2024)

“Shirley” begins with Chisholm’s entrance into Congress, and a group photo taken on the steps of the Capitol. Her proud shoulders and high chin stand out amidst her white male counterparts, and when snide comments fly her way, she fires back with a prideful respect and unwavering demeanor. Immediately, “Shirley” lets us know that its lead is unshakeable. 

It quickly jumps to the beginning of her presidential race, and this subject becomes the primary focus of the film. Shirley strategizes and puts together her crew: her husband, Conrad (Michael Cherrie), her advisors, Wesley McDonald Holder (Lance Reddick) and Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrance Howard), and a young-bright eyed law student, Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges), who has his pulse on the youth sentiment. Working together, they know the litany of reasons why Shirley is an outsider in the race. Aside from the social elements of her race and gender, she also had a comparative lack of political experience, serving only one term as a Congresswoman prior to running. 

But Shirley knew people, and operated on the principle that politics belongs to the citizens. It’s clear that laws of timidity were not present in her doctrine, even telling Gottlieb at one point, in a moment of advice, that being humble is its own form of arrogance. “Shirley” shows immeasurable admiration for its subject, but the film has the treatment of a history lesson, sprinting through notes on a timeline rather than devoting the minutes of its length to the woman herself. 

“Shirley” cannot even be saved by the excellence of its cherished actors because the script prioritizes events over character, failing to realize that the subjects are what make the tale worth telling. Shirley as a figure feels like a rough draft in her own film, with only the headlines receiving care. The film hints at nuanced depths by means of Chisholm’s resentful sister and a dejected husband, but even in these intimate moments (which largely go unexplored), the dialogue feels painfully fabricated. The script’s stubborn determination to treat Chisholm as a symbol comes at the cost of a full, thoughtful depiction. Her bulletproof hope and ambition are at the forefront, but even with King’s effort, the insistent quips and firm upper lip cause Shirley as a character to fall flat, and inevitably, the movie. 

“Shirley” views itself as a punchy, exciting political dossier, but lacks the attention to detail to make it anything other than a historical summary. It’s terribly one note, holding back on nuance and earned emotion and instead swapping it for ham-fisted bullet points and forced pathos. The story is told with breakneck speed, little transition, and minimal processing time, with Shirley constantly taking the backseat to biographical details. Our knowledge of Shirley begins and ends with her determination and the timeline of her accomplishments. It hardly offers more inspiration than her Wikipedia page would, and this watered down, speedy treatment of an American heroine is sigh-worthy.

Shirley is not written to be a whole person, and by proxy, our emotional investment has a gaping hole. Regina King is excellent, delivering stormy passion and spunk, uttering Chisholm’s words with a power that booms from the depth of her spirit. But tragically, her emotional performance and investment are betrayed by the film’s conflation of achievement and persona.

On Netflix now.

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