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Is Regina King’s Biopic on Shirley Chisholm True? Was She the First Black Woman Elected to Congress?

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Regina King
Source: @netflix/X

“Shirley,” now available on Netflix, sheds light on the life of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress. The movie delves into Chisholm’s historic run for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination and the challenges she encountered during her campaign.

Chisholm was a formidable presence in Congress, advocating for her constituents despite facing racism and sexism. The film also highlights Chisholm’s influence on contemporary politicians, featuring portrayals of some of today’s leaders.

The biopic, written and directed by John Ridley, starred Regina King as Chisholm and featured a confrontation between Chisholm and a congressman, portrayed by Robert Craighead, in the hallway.

He expresses disbelief that she earns the same salary as him. Chisholm responds assertively, suggesting he avoids her if he finds it bothersome.

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According to Glenn L. Starks, an author and professor who co-wrote “A Seat at the Table: The Life and Times of Shirley Chisholm” with F. Erik Brooks, Chisholm was indeed repeatedly confronted by other congressmen regarding pay.

While the character in the movie may be a combination of several people, Glenn L. Starks notes that there was one Southern congressman in particular. This congressman repeatedly pointed out how much money Chisholm made, expressing disbelief that a Black woman would earn the same amount in Congress.

According to Starks, Chisholm stood up to him, confidently affirming, “Yes, I do.”

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Chisholm’s relationship with her sister Muriel, portrayed by Reina King in the film, wasn’t good. Reports suggest that her relationships with all her sisters, including two others besides Muriel, were somewhat chilly.

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According to Starks, this could be attributed to her sisters’ belief that Shirley was their father’s favorite. Additionally, any money Chisholm received from their father may have exacerbated tensions in the relationship.

But when Chisholm died in 2005, Muriel did attend her funeral in Florida, though her other sister did not, Starks says. In the film, Chisholm is informed that Speaker of the House John McCormack, portrayed by Ken Strunk, has assigned her to the House Agriculture Committee.

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As a representative for Brooklyn, she feels this assignment isn’t relevant to her district and appeals the appointment. Eventually, she is also placed on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

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Although not depicted in the film, Chisholm made notable contributions to the agriculture committee. She created the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program and expanded the food stamp program.

The movie depicts numerous individuals who collaborated with Chisholm during her presidential campaign. At the film’s end, Congresswoman Barbara Lee is shown speaking. Chisholm’s influence on Barbara Lee’s life and career extends beyond what the movie portrays.

“They first met when Barbara Lee was in college,” Starsk says. She was a single mother on welfare. She had to write a paper about politics. She went to visit Shirley Chisholm and told her she didn’t like politics and was only writing the paper because she had to.” Chisholm reminded Lee how important politicians are, Starks says, and Lee later worked with Chisholm.

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