Is Netflix’s Shirley Based on a True Story?

John Ridley’s Netflix drama film, ‘Shirley,’ takes the viewers to the 1970s, when the titular character, Shirley Chisholm, runs for the Democratic presidential nominee, cementing herself as the first Black political candidate to do so. The film follows the woman’s pioneering presidential campaign after she makes history as the first Black congresswoman. Despite the odds stacked against her favor, with several socio-political biases working against her, Shirley stands her ground and dedicates herself to the cause.

The film remains inspirational, charting the highs and lows of Shirley’s career with equal reverence. Furthermore, the narrative highlights the extraordinary significance of the woman’s career at a time when the country’s political landscape was distinctly unrepresentative of her identity and experiences. Therefore, in witnessing the story of such a trailblazing politician unfold, viewers must be wondering about the film’s origins and authenticity in reality.

Shirley Chisholm: America’s First Black Congresswoman

‘Shirley’ is a biography that dramatizes the real life of its eponymous American politician, Shirley Chisholm, whose campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee was immortalized in the pages of history. Chisholm was born in Brooklyn in 1924 and spent her early childhood in Barbados before moving back to Brooklyn. The temporary but extended stay in Barbados with her family developed the woman’s signature West Indies/Brooklyn accent.

More importantly, Chisholm’s early education shaped the base for her future, which was filled with academic excellence— and later, a seat in the NY State Assembly in 1964. In four years, she earned a place in Congress, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a member. In her career as a congresswoman, Chisholm made a lot of waves, especially with her inclination toward challenging the status quo.

Famously, Chisholm objected against her Agriculture Committee assignment, arguing it had nothing to do with her urban district placement, and achieved a reassignment to Veterans Affairs. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was barely a decade old— and the Women’s liberation movement was still underway, Chisholm was making audacious strides in her career. Especially so when she ran for President in 1972, targeting politically overlooked people, from the Black community and women to the LGBTQ+ and working-class population.

Yet, despite Chisholm’s extraordinary contribution to the reality of Black and female politicians, the woman isn’t nearly as recognized or remembered in the contemporary world as one would expect. Regina King, the Oscar-winning actress, and her sister, Reina King, held the same opinion, which eventually led to the film’s origin.

Regina King and Her Team’s Extensive Research

“Reina and I first decided that Shirley’s [Chisholm’s] story was one that was important to tell when we realized separately and together how many people did not know who Shirley was,” Regina King told Tudum in a discussion about her film. The sibling duo, who have partnered in film production before, were incredibly dedicated to bringing Shirley Chisholm’s story to a larger audience. As a result, the King sisters reportedly spent over fifteen years making their passion project a reality.

In this extended time period, the sisters extensively familiarized themselves with Chisholm’s history to understand her story and do it justice. Thus, the final script, penned by John Ridley, who won an Oscar for ’12 Years a Slave,’ and his creative team, emerged with a substantial amount of real-life consultation behind it. In addition to historical records— conversations with people close to Chisholm in real life, the late politician’s friends and family— embedded Ridley’s script with authenticity and realism.

In fact, Chisholm’s younger sister, Muriel St. Hill, served as a consultant for the film, further adding to the story that reinforces her sister’s legacy. Likewise, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who was a close friend of and worked with Chisholm back in the day, also offered her own expertise during the film’s making. Lee, who also partook in Chisholm’s presidential campaign, particularly, bestowed her unique perspective, strengthening the film’s ties to reality.

As such, Regina King and her team remained committed to maintaining authenticity even in the less historically recorded parts of Chisholm’s life— her personal relations. For the same reason, the film remains historically accurate for the most part, with many instances and events lining up with other accounts of Chisholm’s life. Still, parts of the story had to be tinkered with and meddled with in order to mold reality into a shape fit for Hollywood biopic storytelling.

Regina King’s Depiction of Shirley Chisholm

Since Ridely’s film serves as a biographical account of a crucial point of Chisholm’s life and career, the woman’s on-screen depiction intrinsically informs the film’s real-life resonance. Consequently, Regina King, who embodies Shirley’s character, dedicated herself to the task of studying Chisholm’s real life. In order to do so, King analyzed numerous interviews and videos of the woman to learn about her mannerisms and behavior.

Consequently, King also worked with a dialect coach, leaving no stone unturned. “Having spent time in Barbados and New York, she [Chisholm] would sound Bajan sometimes, and other times like someone from Brooklyn, and other times she sounded more scholarly, and sometimes it was a mix of all three because that’s who she is,” King said sharing her observation. “I promise you, all of the videos and audio that you see of Shirley, you will see so many different sounds and looks.”

For the same reason, King focused on Chisholm’s “emotional likeness” to channel the latter’s essence and bring her character to the screen. “The biggest thing that I was concerned about [was that] my portrayal or embodiment of Shirley would be seen as an imitation as opposed to a celebration of a human being,” The actress told Rolling Stone in an interview. “Hopefully, people will walk away more interested in galvanizing around someone [who] has that much fight in them.”

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