Power  /  Biography

The True History Behind Netflix's 'Shirley' Movie

A new film dramatizes Shirley Chisholm's history-making bid to become the first Black woman president in 1972.

Chisholm struggled to secure support from some of the groups she’d built her campaign around, particularly white women and Black men. Some feminist leaders gave Chisholm only equivocal support, offering a more serious endorsement to another candidate. For instance, Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine, backed Chisholm but said McGovern was the “best white male candidate” in the running. Then there was Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique, who announced a campaign event for Chisholm in Harlem in the form of a “traveling watermelon feast,” apparently unaware of the well-known racist trope.

“Feminists were split over her candidacy,” Robert Gottlieb, the student coordinator for Chisholm’s presidential campaign (played by Lucas Hedges in the film), told Smithsonian magazine in 2016. “Having a woman run for president was like having somebody from Mars run for president. And you then have a Black woman running for president, and everybody, all interest groups, were grappling with, ‘How do you deal with such a changed landscape?’ People were not comfortable with having a Black woman.”

Black men seemed similarly uncomfortable with Chisholm’s candidacy. There were exceptions, such as the Black Panther Party, which formally endorsed her in April 1972. But in Washington, many Black politicians saw her as an obstacle to their own goals. “I recall hearing about a great deal of tension between certain male members and Mrs. Chisholm,” Gottlieb added. “There clearly was within the [Congressional] Black Caucus a significant degree of sexism that she felt.”

As Chisholm’s profile rose, she also became the target of alarming threats. For a while, she relied on her husband as her unofficial bodyguard. That security arrangement would come to an end when all candidates were given Secret Service protection, after a gunman shot Wallace during a campaign event in Maryland on May 15.

Wallace survived the attack, which left him paralyzed in both legs. As he recovered in the hospital, Chisholm made the controversial decision to visit the governor, who was known as the staunch segregationist who called for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

“Black people in my community crucified me,” she later told the New York Times. “But why shouldn’t I go to visit him? Every other presidential candidate was going to see him. He said to me, ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said, ‘I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.”