Netflix’s Shirley: Is Stanley Townsend Based on a Real Person?

Image Credit: Glen Wilson/Netflix

Netflix’s biographical drama, ‘Shirley’ takes the audience to the early 1970s, following Shirley Chisholm’s momentous decision to run for the President of the United States. It’s a mammoth task, and Shirley can use all the help she can get, but things are not so simple. While she’s previously made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, running for President is a much different task. To help her through it, Stanley Townsend is brought on board. Who was he, and what role did he play in Chisholm’s campaign? SPOILERS AHEAD

Stanley Townsend is a Fictional Character in the Netflix Movie

‘Shirley’ is based on true events, and almost every character in the movie represents a real person who worked with the Congresswoman during her campaign. However, the character of Stanley Townsend is not one of them. He is introduced to the team by Mac Holder, who is Shirley’s political advisor. He also served as Shirley’s mentor when she was just starting out in politics. Their old and strong friendship creates a deep trust between them, which is why Shirley welcomes Stanley Townsend as her campaign manager.

In real life, however, Holder himself served in the position of the campaign manager. Fostering a promising talent like Shirley, he dedicated himself to her campaign and tried to do whatever he could to get Shirley the nomination. Things, however, didn’t turn out as he’d expected. The film keeps the equation between Shirley and Holder the same but delegates some of his responsibilities to Stanley Townsend, played by Brian Stokes Mitchell.

The reason behind this decision remains unclear, but it might be because the filmmakers wanted to bring as diverse perspectives into Shirley’s campaign as possible. Much like in the movie, Shirley Chisholm’s race for the Presidential election was marred with challenges, from financial problems to the lack of support from the people who thought a woman, and a Black woman at that, was not cut out for the task of leading the country. In between all this, some people joined her trail at the beginning when the slate was clean but were discouraged later, when things started to get difficult, and left.

Something similar happens with Stanley, who comes into the picture, possibly believing he can control Shirley, take command of the entire campaign, and run it like he wants to. He mistakes her for being impressionable but finds out soon enough that she knows exactly what she wants and won’t bend according to someone else’s rules. At first, Stanley tries to make it work, but when Shirley refuses to accommodate any of his ideas and the campaign seems to be in shambles, he loses his cool.

While Shirley would have been open to working things out with him, she fires him after he gets into a fight with other people in her team. Shirley refuses to ignore Stanley, disrespecting the people who have been with her since the beginning, who have given her her time and dedication and fires Stanley. This displays Shirley’s loyalty to her people and her staff. It may or may not have turned out to be a bad decision in the long run, but Shirley doesn’t care to compromise her dignity, as well as that of her team, and is not in the mood to entertain Stanley’s outburst.

While Stanley may be a fictional character, his presence in the film serves the purpose of highlighting Shirley’s nature as well as revealing the challenges in her path, especially with the kind of people who would jump off the ship when it seems to be sinking. Above all, however, it shows Shirley’s refusal to let herself be governed by someone else, no matter how much experience or expertise they may claim. She refuses to be controlled by men like Stanley, who become frustrated when things don’t go their way and, at times, forget who the real boss is.

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