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Emily Tsiao

Movie Review

Shirley Chisholm is not one to be bought or bossed around.

Just a schoolteacher from Brooklyn, Shirley faces the “double handicap” of being both Black and female. But Shirley is also a fighter, and she has a passion to better the lives of inner-city residents, military veterans, immigrants and refugees. So in 1968, she becomes the first Black woman elected to the United States House of Representatives.

During that first term, the Speaker of the House assigns her to the House Agriculture Committee. But Shirley doesn’t know anything about agriculture. And she certainly can’t help folks living in Brooklyn, New York by serving on the Agriculture Committee.

Shirley’s told to fall in line—to take her $42,500 congressional salary and wait her turn.

But “Fighting Shirley” won’t stand for it.

She gets herself reassigned. She helps make changes to improve the lives of her constituents—particularly minorities and women. But Congress isn’t enough: It’s too small and too slow to make the sort of changes for equality she wants to see on a national scale.

So in 1972, Shirley takes another a bold step. Against all odds, she makes a move for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Positive Elements

Shirley Chisholm is no stranger to discrimination. She’s faced prejudice her whole life as both a woman and as a person of color. But she doesn’t let the opinions of others determine her decisions, even when those decisions make her unpopular among her peers. Shirley also tries to educate those she encounters about racial prejudice and sexism rather than start an argument.

Shirley firmly states that although she is Black and a woman, she doesn’t only stand for Black people and women. Rather, she is a candidate for all the people of America, regardless of race, gender or age. And she employs people for her campaign based on talent, not racial or gender identity.

Shirley’s run for the presidency isn’t so much because she believes she’ll win (although she tries hard to do so). Rather, it’s because she knows that by running, she’ll pave the way for future generations to reach the sort of equality they deserve.

Shirley pours into young people working on her campaign, namely Robert Gottlieb and Barbara Lee. She encourages Robert to take pride in his work, since his youth and self-deprecating humility may invite others not to take him seriously. And she helps Barbara (as well as thousands of other college students able to vote for the first time) to understand the importance of voting. “If all you’re doing is standing outside yelling and screaming, that’s all you’re ever gonna be, a yeller and a screamer,” Shirley tells Barbara.

We get a glimpse of some inner political workings—some of which are unfair or corrupt. But Shirley tries to rise above these dealings. She refuses to be bought. While her fellow politicians are busy making backroom deals and going back on their word, Shirley remains true.

Shirley also has a strong sense of justice, which is why she refuses to kowtow to more senior politicians, many of whom condescend her either because of her political inexperience (and, potentially, her race and gender).

Shirley’s sister, Muriel, informs Shirley of the toll that the campaign is taking on Muriel and their mother since many people blame them for not reeling in Shirley’s “crazy” ideals. And she expresses some jealousy that their father treated Shirley special, giving Shirley the boldness to run in the first place. Shirley apologizes for the grief she’s caused.

However, as Shirley prevails, Muriel realizes that her sister is instilling hope for thousands of people. And she soon apologizes, stating that she is grateful for what Shirley is trying to do.

Many people believe in what Shirley is doing, and they thank her for her bravery.

Spiritual Elements

Shirley and several others profess to be Christian. She tells the American people that “we are all God’s children,” emphasizing that no one person’s will (however rich or powerful they may be) is more important than the least of these.

Shirley visits one of her opponents in the hospital after he’s shot. Her staff advises against this decision, since the man is extremely racist. However, Shirley insists that it’s her Christian duty, especially since she had survived a similar attempt to take her life earlier that year. And later on, Shirley defends her actions again, stating that she’d “break bread with the devil if it made him more Christian.”

Elsewhere, Shirely tells her opponent that God spared her for a reason, and she believes He spared him as well. And she tells him that he has a choice to keep on how he’s been or change—and that he should do so quickly since the “Good Lord” may not be satisfied with just injuring him next time.

Shirley prays for her opponent during the visit, asking God to guide the man and keep him safe. And the man asks her to keep praying for him, to which she responds she always has.

When one of Shirley’s political allies betrays her, she states that she doesn’t hate him and that she can’t be mad at him. Rather, she says, she needs to forgive him. And though it’s clear she’s devastated by his actions, she does forgive him, knowing it’s what God wants of her.

When Shirley insults some men in frustration, she apologizes for her behavior, stating that politics make her “lose” her religion.

During her campaign, Shirley solicits support from several pastors, including her own, but neglects going to church herself since she’s so busy (which her sister disapproves of).

We see some Hasidic Jews in the background of a scene. A woman is described as looking like an angel but fighting like the devil for civil rights. Someone tells Shirley to bring the Black delegates “to Jesus.”

Sexual Content

Shirley and her husband, Conrad, kiss a few times.

[Spoiler warning] We learn in the film’s credits that Shirley and Conrad eventually divorced in 1977 and that Shirley married Arthur Hardwick later that same year. This information gives context to some earlier scenes in the film where Shirley hugs Arthur instead of shaking his proffered hand and where Arthur holds Shirley’s hand shortly after her husband leaves the room.

Violent Content

A man attacks Shirley with a knife, screaming at her and trying to kill her. However, he’s tackled before he can reach her and later arrested.

When one of Shirley’s opponents is shot by a white man (we see the footage on a TV), police incorrectly assume that Robert (who is white) is threatening Shirley. We later see the opponent recovering in a hospital bed and learn he will need a wheelchair the rest of his life.

When someone insults Shirley and yells at her staff, Arthur (a member of her staff) tries to tackle the man, but he’s stopped by his friend.

After being asked her stance on abortion, Shirley says that while she is “an ardent advocate of family planning,” she is also aware that birth control is not fail-proof, so she supports it.

We hear a little about the Vietnam War. There are also references to police violence against Black people. Shirley states that she wants America to be free from violence and war both at home and abroad.

The Black Panthers make an appearance, but they’re denounced for their sometimes-violent radicalism. However, Shirley garners their endorsement; she says that while she doesn’t always agree with their methods, she supports their cause. She also urges them to work with the democratic system, saying, “If you burn down the empire, all that’s left to rule is ashes.”

Crude or Profane Language

The n-word is never said, but it’s written on a box of campaign stickers for Shirley. There are three uses of the f-word and four uses of the s-word. God’s name is abused seven times (twice paired with “d–n”), and Jesus’ name is abused thrice. We also hear about 15 uses of “h—” and four uses of “b–ch.” And there’s a crude reference to the male anatomy.

Drug and Alcohol Content

People smoke cigarettes and pipes. Folks have drinks throughout the film. A man blames America’s drug problem on “liberalism.” A few scenes take place in bars.

Other Negative Elements

Although Conrad initially supports Shirley and her campaign, he soon tires of her poor treatment of him. After an attempt is made on Shirley’s life, Shirley blames Conrad for not protecting her—for not being right next to her. But Conrad reminds Shirley that she has never wanted him right next to her. Rather, she has always expected him to stand out of the way, in the background of scenes, which is why he didn’t see the attacker in time.

Later on, when Shirley wants to pour more money into her failing campaign, Conrad hesitates. Shirley angrily reminds him that the money is hers. She’s not wrong (the money came from her congressional salary), but Conrad asks why she sought his opinion if she didn’t care to hear his answer.

We hear many racial slurs and sexist remarks throughout the film. One of Shirley’s opponents vehemently opposes a law that would help end segregation in schools. A Congressman insults Shirley, upset that someone who looks like her is earning the same amount of money as him. Many white men give Shirley ugly looks, clearly harboring similarly racist attitudes.

Unfortunately, despite the undeniable discrimination taking place, Shirley can sometimes offer up racial or sexist remarks of her own. And another woman commiserates that she used to receive hate mail for portraying a successful single mother on TV, stating that men were threatened by seeing a woman so in control.

Many people try to tell Shirley how politics work, even trying to bully her into compliance; they argue that she shouldn’t try to change the system unless she wants her career to end (i.e., telling her that she can’t talk to certain people and that she shouldn’t expect to make any notable changes in her first year in Congress, if ever).

We witness quite a bit of political corruption, some of which comes directly from the politicians and some of which is built into the system.

Some people host a party allegedly to support Shirley’s campaign. However, this is a ruse, and they steal the money donated at the party. And Shirley’s donors blame her for the event.


Shirley Chisholm was a groundbreaking American politician. As the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman or Black person to run for president, she instilled hope in thousands of Americans who believed that their race or gender would always hold them back.

She didn’t win the election. She didn’t even win the nomination from her party. But Shirely always knew that was a possibility. She wanted to be “nothing more and nothing less than a catalyst for change.” And as she told her staff when her campaign ended, “If I can’t get there today, you have to believe you can get there tomorrow.”

But in spite of Shirley’s inspiring life, Shirley may not be suited for all families.

Language can sometimes get harsh. Notably, the f-word is used three times in one scene by a man attempting to assassinate Shirley, whom he ragingly derides as a “Black b–ch.” The n-word also makes an unfortunate appearance, written on a box of Shirley’s campaign stickers.

Viewers witness many other depictions of racism and sexism throughout the film. And while these are accurate portrayals from American history, those moments could also be upsetting for more sensitive viewers.

It should also be noted that Shirley professes to be a Christian. In many ways, we see how her faith guides her sense of justice and her belief in the need for forgiveness. That said, we also see that she supports the right to abortion.

And though she was a champion for gender equality, Shirly could sometimes be guilty of sexism herself, particularly in her treatment of her husband, whom she eventually divorced.

All in all, Shirley tells a story about a brave woman who believed that all Americans deserved the right to be treated fairly. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily a film that all Americans will be able to watch, given the gritty way these important issues are sometimes depicted here.

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Emily Tsiao

Emily studied film and writing when she was in college. And when she isn’t being way too competitive while playing board games, she enjoys food, sleep, and geeking out with her husband indulging in their “nerdoms,” which is the collective fan cultures of everything they love, such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate and Lord of the Rings.