The journey to portraying Representative Shirley Chisholm onscreen took almost 15 years, says Regina King.
The Academy Award–winning actor and director has been working alongside her sister, Reina King, for over a decade to bring to life the story of the first Black congresswoman—and first Black woman ever to run for president of the United States. Other projects and opportunities kept getting in the way, she says. In the last few years alone, King has appeared in everything from 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, for which she won her Oscar and a Golden Globe, to HBO’s 2019 Watchmen miniseries, to 2021 Black western The Harder They Fall; she was also nominated for a Golden Globe in for her 2020 directorial debut, One Night in Miami…. But as she tells Harper’s Bazaar in an exclusive interview, she and Reina could “never fully let go” of bringing Shirley to fruition.
“It was always a little disheartening for Reina and I to have so many people over the years of our lives not know who Shirley Chisholm was,” King says. “What she did was so pioneering. She was a true maverick and, you know, we use this term all the time, but she was a true first.”
Releasing the film this year turned out to be kismet, however, she says.
“Instead of trying to release it during any normal cycle, we thought, Wouldn’t it be more impactful to release it during a presidential election year?” she explains. “As a team, we felt that is probably the best way we could possibly honor Shirley: to release her in a space that she created for herself.”
With King in the lead role, Lucas Hedges, Christina Jackson, Terrence Howard, and the late Lance Reddick fill out the main cast of Shirley. John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) wrote the film and is at the helm as director. While it focuses on only one momentous year of Chisholm’s life—her presidential run—the movie also allows viewers to see the woman behind the campaign, offering a glimpse into what fueled her ambition.
“Luckily, I got to talk to people that knew her very well,” says King. “I watched every bit of footage there is out there of her. From all of that, you start to look in between the cracks, right? Paying attention to all of those little things showed me just how much of a strategist she was. It takes great strategy to be able to be in the spaces that she was in, and go toe to toe with the people that she went toe to toe with.”
King credits Chisholm’s upbringing with being the secret catalyst of her grassroots politics.
“Growing up in Barbados with her grandmother is where she just received a really regimented sense of expectations and strength. That concept of not accepting anything less than the best for yourself was absolutely instilled in her, from her grandmother,” the actor says. “Also, the schools in Barbados had much more rigorous standards than America. The workload was more intense. By the time she got back to the States, she was so ahead of everyone. She felt such a strong sense of ‘If it’s not me, then who?’ And she didn’t see it any other way. If no one else was doing it, she would take action. Some people may consider that to her detriment as well, but she just didn’t wait for other people to figure it out.”
Looking back at the environment surrounding Chisholm during her initial presidential run, the odds seem stacked against her. She was a woman, she was Black, and it was 1972. But as viewers will see in the film, her campaign was never really about winning. It was about creating equal opportunity and laying forth a path for female politicians and Black politicians alike. Without her, we might not have had political figures like Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, or Kamala Harris.
“She knew just by being Black and a woman, and of how she was born, what it meant to be immediately put in the category of a marginalized person, and she became their voice,” says King. “She was always going to fight the establishment, and that’s what she did until the very, very end. She embraced what made her different and used it as her superpower.”
The actor adds: “Making the decision to run for president as a Black woman in those times, it really made people think, ‘Is she crazy?’ But if you want to call it crazy, then crazy is a good thing.”
Shirley premieres on Netflix on Friday, March 22.
Bianca Betancourt is the culture editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, where she covers all things film, TV, music, and more. When she’s not writing, she loves impulsively baking a batch of cookies, re-listening to the same early-2000s pop playlist, and stalking Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed.