Regina King on why she wanted to make ‘Shirley’: ‘To show what can be done when a person is audacious’

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Nearly five decades before Kamala Harris ran for the U.S. presidency in 2020, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to run for president in 1972. She had also made history in 1968 becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. congress serving in the House of Representatives. The Democrat’s slogan in her first campaign was “Fighting Shirley-Unbought and Unbossed.”  Serving in the House of Representatives until 1983, Chisholm introduced numerous pieces of legislation and was at the forefront of the fight for racial and gender equality and the plight of the poor. She was also the founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus.

And now the trailblazer is the subject of a new Netflix film, “Shirley,” written and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) and starring another Oscar champ Regina King (“If Beale Street Could Talk”).“Shirley” is a passion project for King who also produced the film with her sister Reina. The two spent 15 years bringing Chisholm’s story to life. Recently, King participated in a lively Zoom conversation with Washington Post associate editor Jonathan Capehart.

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The King sisters never gave up on the project because “growing up, even in our young adult years, so many people had never even heard her name,” said Regina. “I feel like to be such a part of the American fabric and people not know her name, not know just what she represents as far as someone having the guts and audacity to what at the time seemed impossible or like a fool’s journey. Not only was it not a fool’s journey, she represented the possibility of what can be done when a person is audacious.”

Chisholm, said King, was one of the unique individuals she’s ever studied. The most terrifying aspect of getting into her being was perfecting her unique dialect. “Shirley is this amalgamation of her voice of a person born and bred in Brooklyn and a person [who] spent her early years back in Barbados because her parents sent her and her sisters back to Barbados so that her grandmother could raise them while her parents worked and created a better space for them to live once they came back to Brooklyn.”

The actress noted Chisholm knew she wouldn’t win the election but thought “if I don’t do it, then who? Someone has to. If not now, then when?  To have the guts to do that is remarkable because of her understanding that it was necessary. Cut to 50 years later, we have Hillary Clinton, President Barak Obama, and all of the other black or female politicians who ran for president or ran for office higher than a council member. I think we can thank Shirley for that.”

She hopes young people will be inspired by “Shirley” and get involved in politics. “If it’s just two or three who are inspired to want to use their voice and become part of the political process, not just as voters. When I say run for office, I’m talking about those local positions that really affect our day-to-day life, even more than a president.”

Chisholm kept busy after her retirement. She was a popular fixture on the lecture circuit and taught at Mount Holyoke College and Spelman College. President Bill Clinton asked her to be ambassador to Jamaica in 1993, but she turned it down due to ill health. She died in 2005 at the age of 80 after a series of strokes. And in 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts,” she said about her legacy. “That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”

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