Shirley Chisholm 1972 (photo by Rose Greene)

“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 am equally proud of that … I am the candidate of the people of America.”

–Shirley Chisholm, January 25, 1972, announcing her bid for the U.S. Presidency

Desegregation may have been positive for many people to the extent that it theoretically broadened the scope of opportunities for people of color. And by rejecting the notion that separate was equal, the Brown decision, along with the Civil Rights Acts that became law a decade later, forced whites to recognize the existence of blacks, if nothing else. They attended the same schools, ate in the same restaurants and were citizens of the same nation.

Or so Shirley Chisholm wanted to believe. The first black woman elected to Congress and then to seriously run for president in 1972, this Brooklyn Democrat sought to make democracy live up to its name by making the U.S. political system more representative, humane and inclusive. But for all of the recognition – much of it negative and degrading – Chisholm received during her political career, she, as a historical subject, couldn’t overcome the virtual invisibility that women of color have been plagued with, even today, 50 years after the Brown decision.

It is for this very reason that Shola Lynch decided to make Chisholm’s 1972 run for the White House the subject of her first feature film. When I sat down with Lynch to discuss the making of Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, she relayed that she knew of Chisolm prior to making the film. But because Chisholm is rarely mentioned – much less discussed extensively – in history books and in film, Lynch’s knowledge about her was extremely limited.

And Lynch, it goes without saying, was certainly not the only one who knew so little about a woman who has struggled to contribute so much to the American people – be they black, white, gay, women, rich, poor or any combination thereof. Perhaps now that Lynch has made this film, which will be released nationwide by Film Movement in September, this historical error can begin to be corrected.

The Interviewer: Laura Nathan, InTheFray Managing Editor
The Interviewee: Shola Lynch, Director, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed

(The text below includes highlights from the interview. For the complete transcript, click here)

Shirley Chisholm at a press conference with Congressman Ron Dellums in 1972 (photo courtesy of Shirley Chisholm)

Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to make a documentary about Shirley Chisholm.

Well, you know, I didn’t really remember that she’d run for president. I knew that she was the first black woman elected to Congress, and I don’t even really remember 1972. I was really young. It hadn’t really been pointed out to me, and I’m very interested in history. I’m really interested in African American history and women’s history, but she’s kind of left out of that landscape. She’s mentioned in passing, though. I was familiar with her name, but nobody has really done an in-depth study of her political work. Or even a biography, for that matter … [She wrote her own, though]. She wrote Unbought and Unbossed about her run for Congress. She had a really difficult run. That actually is a really fascinating story. And she wrote The Good Fight, which is about her run for president.

But those were both written back in the ’70s, right?

Exactly. The year after the race. So in ’69, Unbought and Unbossed, and The Good Fight in ’73. It was published in 1973. And in many ways, that presidential campaign took so much out of her. Emotionally, financially.

And she was attacked several times, right?

Yeah, she was attacked several times. I mean, it was scary, and it was definitely supposed to be a warning to her that she was transgressing her place and that she was really not fit for being there. And some of it was out and out intimidation of her.

Do you think that that was the case because she was a woman of color, or was it due to either her race or gender specifically?

You know, you can’t separate the two. Would it have happened if it was just a man? Probably. But in some ways it was more offensive to think that you had both a minority race and gender classification or guidelines. [People at that time thought Chisholm] shouldn’t have been there [running for president and speaking out against social and political norms].

I don’t remember – when did her political career end?

… She was in Congress from ’68 to ’83, and she retired because of the Reagan era … She said it was very difficult to work across the aisle and have bipartisan legislation. She was always very issue-oriented and relied on that work across the aisle – and with who[m]ever. She didn’t tow the party line. Nobody really owned her, which is great and really frustrating …

Were there certain political pet projects that she had? I know she wanted to make democracy more representative, but were there certain pieces of legislation that she worked on to achieve that end?

Well, I talked to her senior legislative aide during that period. She’s actually in the movie – Shirley Gaines. She was interested in education. And there were a couple of bills that she had passed on health care and things that had to do with issues related to the people in her community. They were largely a group of people not making a lot of money, just trying to get by in Brooklyn. And she was very aware of the need for after-school programs and for passing legislation related to that in the New York state legislature and also in the U.S. Congress.

She spoke out against the Vietnam War on the floor of Congress when nobody else did.  She worked for women’s rights and the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment] …

In a way, it’s very fascinating to me because she comes out of a Christian tradition. We always think of Christian tradition as very fundamentalist and very right-wing. Her Christian tradition was humanistic, and because of that, she defended broad kinds of legislation and was for human rights, and there wasn’t really such thing as gay rights, but gay rights folks loved her. I mean, she wasn’t advocating a gay lifestyle, but she was advocating human beings’ rights, and whatever fell under that broad umbrella was really important to her …

Shirley Chisholm 2003 (photo by Sandi Sissel)

… Tell me a little bit about the effect you think Shirley Chisholm had on her constituents and her colleagues.

Everybody that we talked [to] who had worked with her in Congress or on her campaign was so incredibly impacted by her energy, her commitment, her follow-through, and were completely inspired in their own lives in that way. And to a T, every person has been involved in either local politics or their own work community and shaping rules, trying to change things. It’s almost like they have a real sense of citizenship and duty from seeing her in action as young kids, well, not kids, college-age. And they are always impressed with [her] forthrightness. We think of politicians as trying to figure out how to spin things, but she just had her mind set on something. She was the same person, who believed in the same legislation and said the same thing whether she was in front of a white Southern audience or a black Baptist audience or an urban audience anywhere in the country …

Are there any politicians or activists that you think have really embraced Chisholm’s message? Can you think of anyone who might be the next Shirley Chisholm?

That’s a hard question, by the way, because I’m not aware of everyone doing her work. But Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, California, actually, as a young college student, helped run the Chisholm presidential campaign and was so inspired by Shirley Chisholm and Ron Delam and by community activism in the Bay Area that she became a politician. She became involved in local politics and then decided to run for Congress. And she stood up; she was the lone voice on the floor against giving unilateral power to our President after 9/11. You know, wow! … And she also has put a bill on the floor a couple of years ago to recognize Shirley Chisolm [H.Res. 97, March 21, 2001, referred to the Committee on Government Reform, but never considered]. I mean, it’s not legislation. It’s a public record. I think these examples are important for women, for women of color. These women are righteous in a lot of ways. You don’t always agree with them, and that’s part of the fun, too. But they’re doing what they think is best, and there’s real appeal in that.

One of Shirley’s gripes with the political system was that it wasn’t equally accessible to everyone. Would you say this still seems to be the case now? Obviously, it still seems to be.

Yeah. It’s even worse now because it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. More people now than …  in the ‘50s, obviously, and even in ’72 feel like they cannot affect any kind of change. Whereas, back then, it was kind of the tail end of that feeling … If you think about the civil rights movement, which was started in part by adults, a lot of the change came from protesting in the streets by young people. And the civil rights laws passed, and the Voting Rights Act passed. The ERA almost passed, or it passed in Congress, but then it didn’t get ratified by the states. [Laughs]. Then Vietnam was a huge issue.

And the voting age had changed from 21 to 18, and ’72 was the first election where all of these people were allowed to vote. That’s a huge part of the story in that it’s a historical moment that allowed her to run. You’re talking about 10 million new voters that were crazy enough to be attracted – many of them – to a candidate like her …

Carol Mosley Braun ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this past winter, but she has since bowed out of the race. Do you think the same barriers exist to a woman of color getting elected to the White House for women like Carol Mosley Braun as they did for Shirley Chisholm, or do you think those barriers have changed in some respects?

Well, I think they have changed to a degree in that because there are more women and women of color involved in all aspects of political life – not to say there are huge amounts – but it’s not as shocking. Think about Congress. Four hundred-some-odd congressmen. Think about what a group picture would have looked like for Shirley Chisholm. I mean, the people she had to work with every day. She was the first, so it was really uncomfortable. I mean, she told all kinds of stories – we couldn’t put all of them in the film – about ways in which people really felt uncomfortable around her. And in some ways, it was isolating. I mean, she built her own community through her office. It was really draining in a lot of ways.

Now there are more women in Congress, and it’s not as shocking. But there are still huge barriers because of the idea of leadership that we have – I mean, there are even barriers for some men. Everyone can’t style himself as Indiana Jones, and so if you’re a guy who doesn’t exude that kind of masculinity, you’re going to have a lot of trouble …

Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest criticisms of both the mainstream feminist movement and the racial equality movement, if you’d call it that, is the failure of these movements to recognize various other aspects of identity. Do you find that this is still a problem, particularly for women of color? And do you think there is a way for women of color to successfully work with mainstream feminist movements and racial equality movements?

Yeah, you know, the thing is, it has always been an issue, and it will probably always be an issue. And it’s a matter of how open the dialogue is in many respects, and Shirley Chisholm said this, too. The idea was that she could bring a coalition of people together, and then the reality was that coalition-building was really hard. Because women’s groups didn’t necessarily want to deal with black issues, and black folks didn’t really want to deal with women’s issues, and it was difficult … And so black women were feeling kind of left out. And Paula Giddings, who wrote When and Where I Enter, which is a history of this subject … [shows] how black women have been the fabric of American history. And she doesn’t do it with uplift and celebration, but in showing their work and showing how they’ve been able to navigate race and gender in the 18th century, in the 19th century and the 20th century. In fact, it’s the only place where I found more than passing mention of Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president …

Granted, it’s just 2 ½ pages … She points out that in the ’70s, you see black women finding their own voice, and you see that happening in literature and in politics. For instance … Maya Angelou and then also Shirley Chisholm in politics. It’s like, okay, we have identity other than just our gender or just our race. And that’s the fascinating part. People will fixate on only one aspect of someone’s experience. It’s limiting because no one walks through the world just as their race or just as their gender. There are all kinds of ways in which you identify. I identify – I used to identify – as an athlete and as a scholar and all of the things that make up our personalities …

Shola Lynch on location in Barbados (photo by Sandi Sissel)

In the film world, women of color lack a visible presence as well. There aren’t that many films about women of color. Did you find that that made it difficult for you to produce this, your first film? I guess most of the funding for your film came from organizations with a vested interest in promoting Chisholm’s message. But did you find that you had trouble initially getting that story out and garnering support for your project?

Well, I found that I had trouble fundraising because people really wondered. I had to craft my proposals knowing that people were going to craft the relevance of it … I didn’t want it to be a biography for that reason. Not that I think a biography is a bad way to go, but she is really a woman of action. This is a story about her run for president. So it’s easier to stay away from just general celebration and uplift, which happens a lot. And I think that does a disservice because people who participate in making history don’t think of themselves as making history.

There are all of these moral dilemmas and choices that they’re responsible for. And they have to think about what those choices are and act on them. And that’s the same kind of thing we all do every day, whether we choose to ignore the choice or not, which is easier in a lot of ways … So I wanted it to be about that process. And the other thing about it is that because I am a black woman, I knew I could raise money for a film about a black woman. And that because she was not historically contested territory – in fact, the territory didn’t exist – people were like, “Oh, how nice.” And there was that assumption that this would be a nice documentary as opposed to a good political story. I mean, I knew I couldn’t make a story about the ’72 presidential election … Now I hope that this gets easier and that I don’t have to work as hard to find funding. There are so many great documentaries I’d love to make …

When I spoke with Larry [Meistrich, CEO of Film Movement, distributor of Chisolm ’72], one of the things he mentioned when we discussed your film was that they’re marketing it as a film about electability rather than a story about an African American woman. Is that how you want to see your film marketed as well?

Yeah, you know, I think too often you can get pigeonholed by your race and gender [Laughs]. And while it’s interesting and it’s good and it’s important, it is. And nobody wants to give it that short shrift.

The reason the movie is important to me is not because of her race and gender, but it’s because of her political action and the kind of politician she was. Given that time period, it’s amazing, including the race and gender stuff. And I really appreciate that about Larry’s approach to the material in the film because it is a political story.  And that’s the more interesting story. I mean, it’s like “Yeah, great, she’s black and she’s a woman. Yeah, great.” That story’s done in 30 seconds. Cheers! [Laughs]. And I think too often people forget that any story, if it’s told well, has broad appeal because it strikes a human chord.

All of that being said, what is it that you would ideally like to see your audience take from Chisholm ’72?

Oh, gosh, that’s a really hard question! A little bit of hope, a little bit of optimism that could be translated into their own lives and their own communities. Yeah, if you think about it, you know, “Democracy, citizenship, and participation.” [Laughs]. And what it means applied to us as individuals. But it’s not an abstract idea – well, it is an abstract idea, but it also translates into everyday life.

What would you hope other filmmakers might take from your story and from your work?

Yeah, I’m not as presumptuous. [Laughs]. Well, I will say that what we tried to do was tell a really good story and were aware of that and didn’t want to just rely on the fact that we had a fascinating subject. I mean, you see it happening for a lot of the documentaries now. You have to tell a story. It’s not just information strung together.

Is there anything you hope political aspirants or people in politics would take from your story about Shirley and her career?

Well, in a lot of ways, they’re the ones who can make the fastest, most effective changes right now. You know, politicians as a breed do not have to be bad people. You don’t have to agree with them, but if politicians actually behave in a way that they believe is actually good and right rather than just trying to win a game, then I think we make our world a better place. There are a lot of people on both sides, throughout the political spectrum, that feel that way. I mean, there are a lot of people who just care about winning and making sure you have a job. It’s about money and corporate interests and lobbyists. Oh my gosh. I don’t know quite how to put this. Politics shouldn’t be just about winning. It should be about doing good, but you want to win also. So I’m not quite sure.

One last question. Has Shirley seen the film? What does she think about it?

She has not seen the film.

Oh, really?

She has a very interesting relationship to the film. She almost didn’t let me do it. I had to talk her into it. So I talked her into it, and we went down and did one interview with her so we’d have a trailer to show people. She humored us basically because when we showed up, I said, “We’re going to use this [trailer] to fundraise, so I’ll be back. It might take a year. It might take two.” She never really expected me to come back, which is why she humored us. She’s good at that actually, but she’s also a woman of her word. So when I did come back, she had to do it.

And so when we told her we got into Sundance [Film Festival], she said, “Oh, that’s nice.”  But I had to explain to her what that meant because she had no conception of what Sundance was. She was like, “Oh, have fun, dear!” And I wanted to show her the film before we went to Sundance, but she said, “This isn’t a good time.” She had just moved. She had just built a house, and she wanted to move all of her books out of storage. She wanted to be surrounded by her books. And so, finally, I’m going down to show it to her next week actually.

Why didn’t she want you to make the film? Did she just think it wouldn’t be interesting to other people?

In some ways, she didn’t feel it was very relevant. I had to remind her. She said, “That was 30 years ago; I’m not sure if I want to go back to that.” She had real resistance to doing that. But I was able ultimately to convince her because I said, “It’s not really about you. It’s about future generations and making sure that they have great examples, great stories about people who tried to do good things.” Basically, I appealed to the schoolteacher in her.”

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