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'Shirley' movie review with Casey T. Allen

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Movie poster for the biographical drama film, "Shirley"
Theatrical release poster

One time I was at a party with lots of mysterious men, and I walked up to a man who I thought was handsome and introduced myself. When I asked this man what he did for work, he said, "I'm a professional ghost hunter." And then I immediately said, "Goodbye." That's how I felt after watching the biopic Shirley released on Netflix March 22nd. When I first learned of this film last month and its upcoming release date, I was interested...and once I saw Shirley I said, "Goodbye."

John Ridley is the writer and director of Shirley, and he brings a lot of prestigious experience with him including seven published novels and an Oscar he won in 2014 for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. The life of the title character Shirley Chisholm is no doubt rich with historic trailblazing events. She was the first African American woman elected to congress in 1968 and, more famously, the first woman and African American to run a campaign for President of the United States, from one of the two major political parties, in 1972.

This new film centers around Shirley's shocking run for president with almost everyone in her life telling her she shouldn't. (Her campaign did not last long, of course, with 1972 being the second victory of Richard Nixon as president.)

This groundbreaking presidential campaign was put on the silver screen in the 2004 documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed with a run-time of only 76 minutes. Choosing to create a dramatized film about this woman's life is a great idea, because it can help a larger field of people, especially young people, learn about her personal courage in the face of enormous political discrimination and gender inequality.

Portraying a life of such boldness you would think this film is also bold, audaciously inspiring, and determined. But I was hugely disappointed to learn Shirley has the boldness of a church mouse. Making such a focused effort to tell a friendly, innocuous, and unsullied story made this film feel like a boring history lesson with so little drama that I finished it feeling mostly empty.

Regina King (Watchmen, 2019) is a gifted actress, and her performance as Ms. Chisholm is studious and diligent (even her Caribbean/American accent is convincing). But her forcefulness and assertive leadership feels so fleeting or inconsistent that she lacks the passion and frustration that could make this film more emotionally affecting for viewers.

Yes, there's some interesting dialogue between Shirley and her overshadowed husband, as well as Shirley with her embittered younger sister Muriel, that offer glimpses into her rocky personal relationships. But these dialogues are written with such a shyness or reticence, I felt the director and producers must have felt too nervous exploring any negativity simmering in Shirley's inner circle.

In a past review from many years ago, famous film critic Roger Ebert wrote, "Strongly told stories have a way of carrying their characters along with them." Shirley does not have that. Shirley slips into the easy pitfalls of many biopics and history adaptations: it paints its subject as too much of a righteous saint/political figure and not enough as a human one.

Casey T. Allen is a native of Utah who graduated from Utah State University with a Bachelor's degree in English in 2007. He has worked in many capacities throughout USU campus and enjoys his time at UPR to continually exercise his writing.