Is ‘Shirley’ Based On A True Story? The Impactful Legacy Of Shirley Chisholm (2024)

The inspirational biopic Shirley is now streaming on Netflix. As you watch it, you might be wondering whether Shirley is based on a true story. Read on to learn about Shirley Chisholm’s trailblazing career and her long-lasting impact on African American politics.

Shirley stars Oscar-winning actress Regina King as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black congresswoman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the first Black candidate to seek a major party’s nomination in 1972. The movie follows Chisholm’s historic presidential run as she overcomes obstacles, including racism and misogyny.

The film also explores Shirley’s relationship with Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace, her association with the Black Panther Party and the tension with her sister Muriel St. Hill — played by Regina’s real-life sibling, Reina King.

“I realized one, Regina and I’ve never played in something together,” Reina, who co-produced the film with her sister, told NBC News. “As important as this project has been to both of us, it was special for us to come together and work as actresses.” The late Lance Reddick, Lucas Hedges, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christina Jackson, Michael Cherrie, André Holland, Terrence Howard and more also star.

The Kings said they chose to tell Shirley’s story because it was missing from the history books, and most people were unaware of who she was or her groundbreaking accomplishments in history.

“We chose Shirley because we realized there were far too many people who didn’t even know her name. We felt it was important that people not only know her name, but why she was important, relevant, and inspiring,” Regina told Entertainment Weekly.

Reina expressed a similar sentiment to Netflix’s Tudum. “You learned about Malcolm X, and you learned about Martin Luther King in U.S. history classes, but not this great, powerful woman,” she explained. “Why aren’t students being told about that? When I would mention Shirley’s name, no one seemed to know who she was, and [that] lit a fire under us even more. We were like, ‘The world should know, the country should know, women should know, people should know, kids should know.’”

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Is Shirley On Netflix Based On A True Story?

Yes, Shirley is based on the real-life story of Shirley Chisholm. Before her political career, Chisholm studied early childhood education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and taught nursery school before supervising 10 daycare centers in New York City.

After joining local Democratic clubs, Chisholm won the NY State Assembly seat in 1964, according to Time Magazine. Four years later, in 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress without the support of party leadership. She represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983.

Throughout her 14-year tenure in Congress, Chisholm played a pivotal role in increasing social services, extending the reach of the food stamp program, and helping establish the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. She also chaired the conference committee for a bill to universalize childcare, but Nixon vetoed it.

Why Did Shirley Chisholm Run For President?

Shirley made history again when she joined the race for president of the United States. She formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in Brooklyn.

“My presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history,” she declared in her announcement speech. “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I’m equally proud of that.”

Author and professor Glenn L. Starks, Ph.D., who co-wrote A Seat at the Table: The Life and Times of Shirley Chisholm, told USA Today that Shirley “was tired of all the disenfranchised voices not having a say in politics” at the time of her candidacy.

“Her whole life in Brooklyn, running for the New York Assembly, her whole life in Congress, she always ran as the underdog who went out and supported women’s rights, gay rights, poor people,” Starks explained. “She supported people whose voices were not heard. She was tired of people getting votes from the Black community, but never doing anything for them. From the time she got involved in politics in college, it’s really who she was.”

Although Chisholm did not have enough delegates at the Democratic National Convention (she lost the nomination to George McGovern, who lost the general election to Republican candidate and then-President Richard M. Nixon), she became an influential figure for Black women in politics.

Kamala Harris, the first female, first Black, and first Asian-American Vice President, credited Chisholm with paving the way for her career. “We stand on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm, and Shirley Chisholm stood proud,” Harris said in a speech, according to CBS News.

What Happened To Shirley Chisholm?

Shirley Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983. She took a teaching position at Mount Holyoke in 1983, and for five years, she was a professor in the sociology and anthropology departments and taught Congress as a Complex Organization, The Social Roles of Women, Urban Sociology, and The Black Woman in America, according to the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Association.

Despite being nominated for an ambassadorial position in 1993, she withdrew due to health concerns. Shirley Chisholm passed away on January 1, 2005, at the age of 80, in Ormond Beach, Florida. Eleven years later, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Regina said that most of the research for the film was through Shirley’s books, Unbought and Unbossed and The Good Fight, as well as documentaries, news footage, articles, and “everything that we could pull to put us in the place that told us who Shirley was, and what was important to tell about her story,” she told Tudum.

The actress also revealed that the set received a special visit from U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), portrayed in the film by Christina Jackson.

“Having Barbara Lee come and visit the set was definitely like she was giving us Shirley’s blessing in a lot of ways,” Regina said. “Barbara represents just how someone can come into your life and not only inspire you, but kind of put a lightbulb in your head to let you know, ‘Oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing. There is something within me that I have to give way beyond just this moment.’ Shirley lit that fire in Barbara by example.”

Shirley is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer for Shirley below.

Is ‘Shirley’ Based On A True Story? The Impactful Legacy Of Shirley Chisholm (2024)
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