Regina King Wants People to Know Shirley Chisholm’s Good Fight

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Credit: ILLUSTRATION BY MARK SUMMERS
Credit: ILLUSTRATION BY MARK SUMMERS

Most people have a pet peeve, but for powerhouse actress Regina King, her latest project is a shot at trying to fix hers. And it’s a solution so necessary it’s been almost 15 years in the making.

Premiering March 22 on Netflix, the new biopic Shirley stars King as the indomitable Shirley Chisholm, the Brooklyn politician who made history in 1972 for being the first Black woman to run for president of the United States. While King plays the titular role, she also helped develop the film with her sister, Reina Chisholm, after the two of them got frustrated with walking into rooms where people didn’t know who Shirley was.

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“So many people aren’t [familiar with Chisholm],” King says. “Which is why Reina and I decided that her story needed to be told.”

Known for her hard-hitting roles in Boyz n the Hood, Jerry Maguire, The Leftovers, Watchmen, and If Beale Street Could Talk, King has spent close to four decades in Hollywood defining herself as both a scene-stealing actor and intrepid director — and has been rewarded with four Primetime Emmy Awards, an Academy Award, and plenty of critical acclaim. But Shirley isn’t just King’s lifelong dream come to life — it’s her first role since the loss of her son, Ian Alexander Jr., who died by suicide in 2022.

Shirley is the only thing that I’ve acted in [since],” King says. “I had to finish it because I always told Ian, ‘Finish what you start.’ And because Ian was so much … because he is an integral part of Shirley even happening. He’s been by my side through it all.”

While on a walk through a rainy Los Angeles with Earl, her three-year-old Labrakita, King speaks to Rolling Stone about rediscovering the person behind Chisholm’s historic political career, the game behind directing, and learning how to embrace her new normal.

You’re playing Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president. Do you find that with historical figures who reach mythic proportions, their accomplishments can supersede the more grounded facts about them?
I think that’s true with any great figure. Whether it’s a slice-of-life or a cradle-to-grave biography, I’m not interested in dedicating two hours to watching [something] and walking away not feeling any different.

What was most important to you with your approach to this portrayal?
The emotional likeness and the interior of Shirley. Imitating becomes a caricature a lot of the time. 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.… Hopefully, people will walk away more interested in galvanizing around someone [who] has that much fight in them. I’m not gonna try to even touch the political conversation because it’s just so disappointing right now. I just wish I had some of that Shirley good-fight energy.

After the critical success of One Night in Miami, which you directed, were you surprised more directing opportunities weren’t banging down your door?
There were definitely directing opportunities there. What I would say is they were opportunities that weren’t of interest to me. Unfortunately, this [is] a business of people wanting to be first at being second — all of a sudden you get an influx of civil rights scripts or scripts in a hotel, scripts in one room.

What draws you in about the experience of directing?
I love being the person that the idea starts from. And then you give these thoughts to your department heads, and they get excited and take it even further, and then bring things to the table that you may not have thought about. It’s really fun. I love doing puzzles. Hardcore. I’m a puzzler. And so maybe a bit of that spirit is what’s exciting.

I know you and your dog are on a walk right now. What’s your favorite thing about having a pet?
Earl was [my son] Ian’s dog, and when Ian moved on, I just felt like it … I’m still a very spiritual person, and I felt like Ian was putting a lot of things in place to take care of me. And Earl, his love is unconditional. There’s no judgment. When I’m sad, he just runs across the room. He thinks he’s a small dog — he’s 90 pounds — and he will literally try to hug me.

I was so sorry to hear about your son Ian’s passing. What has the process of healing looked like for you?
Only people who have suffered a life-changing loss, traumatic loss, understand that you’re always in a place of healing. When I speak to other people who are 16 or 18 years in after losing children, they seem to be just as broken as I am. So it’s not so much healing as much as accepting that your relationship with [the] person that’s your life has changed.

I know my baby was exhausted because he would tell me. And it’s selfish to say I wish he was still here, but I don’t want him to be here in pain. So it’s acceptance. Accepting that the universe chose this as a journey for Ian. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would do it all over again the same way just to be his mother. The most joy I’ve ever received in my 53 years of being on this earth is being Ian’s mom. And I’m always gonna be his mom.

Are there other things bringing you peace and joy in your life right now?
I am trying to figure that out. This is a devastating thing. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But when you live out publicly, it just hits different. You’re just not as trusting. Having to go on this journey of promoting projects because they all were started before, I had to talk with my team on how to navigate. Because I don’t know how to not talk about Ian. How do I do that and not break down and be out of control? There’s this constant kind of anxiety. And then it never fails — Ian will send me a sign. Sometimes a sunrise and sunset — Ian’s favorite color is orange. They get me through. I feel like it’s a hug.

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