Copyright 1999-2009 3BlackChicks Enterprises™. All Rights Reserved.

Shirley Chisholm
MsWrite, Deesha Thomas' interview with Shola Lynch, Independent filmmaker of
Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed


Copyright Deesha Philyaw Thomas, 2005

Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed
to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for
this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.
-- Shirley Chisholm

~

Growing up, my elementary school black history education being as limited (okay, non-existent; this was the South after all) as it was, I used to always get Shirley Chisholm and Marva Collins mixed up. It was an understandable error; they were both school teachers at some point in their lives. But while both these inspiring women embody perseverance and courage, the documentary Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed ensures I will never confuse the two women again. This film chronicles Shirley Chisholm's ground-breaking run for the presidency, and her unique place in American social and political history.

The eldest of four daughters born in 1924 in New York City to Barbadian immigrants, Chisholm began her professional career as a nursery school teacher. She went on to become director of a day care center, and then an educational consultant with NYC's child care department. Her participation in local Democratic politics led to a successful run for the New York State Assembly in 1964.

~

I am the people's politician. If the day should ever come when the people can't save me,
I'll know I'm finished.
-- Shirley Chisholm, upon winning her U.S. Congressional seat

~

In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. She represented New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her first year in Washington, Chisholm was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, which she felt was irrelevant to her Bed-Stuy constituents. An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, she demanded reassignment and in an unprecedented move, was placed instead on the Veterans Affairs Committee.

A founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, Chisholm wasn't afraid to raise the ire of black folks either. She voted for Hale Boggs, who was white, over John Conyers, who is black, for majority leader. Boggs returned the favor by placing Chisholm on the coveted Education and Labor Committee. She was this Committee's third-ranking member at the end of her tenure.

In 1972, Chisholm became the first black person to seek a major party's nomination when she ran for President of the United States. After receiving only 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention, she withdrew from the race.

During the presidential campaign, Chisholm visited her opponent, segregationist George Wallace, in the hospital after he had been shot. Chisholm recalled: "He said, `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." Two years later, Wallace rallied the votes Chisholm needed from Southern members of Congress to extend the minimum wage to domestic workers.

During her seven terms in the House before retiring in 1983, Chisholm was a passionate orator, championing women and minorities, and criticizing Congress for being elitist and out of touch. Living as we do now in an era of politicians who are more invested in self-preservation than social justice, at the expense of their constituents, we could certainly use more public servants with Chisholm's level of competence, dedication, and integrity [Obama, we're keeping our fingers crossed!].

~~~~~

Once I had an understanding of story-telling, I began to think about the politics of it.
Why were some stories part of the lexicon on American history and others left out?
-- Shola Lynch, director, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed

~~~~~

Independent filmmaker Shola Lynch makes her directorial debut with Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed. Lynch apprenticed with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, and she worked on Do You Believe in Miracles?:The Story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team for HBO Sports.

Writer and 3BC's resident MsWrite, Deesha Philyaw Thomas, recently chatted with Lynch about the making of Chisholm '72, presidential politics, and the complex intersections of race and gender.

DPT:
What led you to make a documentary about Shirley Chisholm?

SL:
I had been working in documentary filmmaking for a bit with Ken Burns and Florentine Films. I was associate producer on Frank Lloyd Wright and then the Jazz project. So, we're coming around to four years working in documentary filmmaking, and although I had never thought about making a film before, I started to wonder if I'm just going to work for other people, or whether I can make a film, as a director. So, I was thinking about topics that might work for me, and Shirley Chisholm's birthday was announced on NPR. I thought, "Wow, she's alive," and then this light bulb went off in my head: "She's still alive.. At that point, I did some research, and that's when I rediscovered her run for president in 1972. I said, "That is really the story." This was all in 1999, leading into 2000.

I went back to some of the history books that I had read, and she was mentioned in passing. I knew who she was. She was a political figure, but she's not really discussed in any major way, so it was very easy to be dismissive of her. Many people did not take her run for president in 1972 very seriously, so of course it wasn't written about. But when I took the time to look back, though, and particularly at the age I was, in my late '20s and on, it all began to make sense, that intersection of race and gender, as well as the idea of presidential politics--who's participating, what democracy means, and what our role in it is. And all of this could be discussed through Mrs. C's "Story of the [Chisholm] Trail"--without being didactic. I didn't want to talk about it. I wanted the viewer to see her and the story in action. So that questions are raised, and you can't help but comparing to what's going on today.

~~~~~

You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining.
You make progress by implementing ideas.
-- Shirley Chisholm

~~~~~

DPT:
I read that you have an interesting story about how you were able to finally contact Mrs. Chisholm about participating in the film.

SL:
[Laughter] Yeah.

[Pause]

SL:
Oh, you want me to tell it?

DPT:
[Laughter] Yes, please! In your own words.

SL:
[Laughter] This is especially for all the chicks out there…

DPT:
Meeting guys through filmmaking…

SL:
[Laughter] Okay…I find that when I throw my energy and my focus into something 100%, there are unexpected things that happen. And this was one of those unexpected things. I was working full-time with Ken Burns. Every couple of days, I would take some time and make phone calls to various political offices, to Congress, to Mount Holyoke where [Mrs. Chisholm] had taught, trying to track her down. And I'd get these various responses: "I don't think she's still alive" or "We don't have any information, try such and such." And it was always a dead-end. The other thing was, when I'd call and say I wanted to get in touch with her, who the heck am I? So even if they had information, I don't know if it would have been shared. So I'm going through this process, and the film is still very much an idea in my head.

I'd been living in New Hampshire, so when I'd come into New York City, I'd go out out.

DPT:
Oh, I'll bet.

SL:
And one night, a friend and I were hanging out at this bar, and there was this very cute guy at the bar, talking to the bartender. The guy was extremely well-dressed; he kind of looked like Seal but with hair. [Laughter] I thought he was striking, boy! Well, he finishes up his conversation and leaves. And I go up to the bartender, and I say, "Your friend was really cute." And he just cocks his head and looks me and says, "Well, why didn't you say something when he was in here." He ducks under the bar, goes out the back door, catches the guy, brings him back, and says, "She thinks you're cute." And then goes back to tending bar! And I'm sit ting there feeling like an idiot. We start talking, we went out on a couple of dates, and at some point we talked about family and politics, and he said, "Oh yeah, my mom just had a barbecue for Shirley Chisholm in Florida where she lives"…

He was a super nice guy. And his mom was just great, and she gave me Shirley Chisholm's correct address and phone number.

DPT:
Tell me about the first time you met Mrs. Chisholm. Was she pretty much how you imagined she would be?

SL:
I didn't imagine it would be so hard to talk her into [doing the film]. But in retrospect I understand that she is an action-oriented lady. She's in the present and working on whatever she's doing right now. And the idea of going back and thinking about stuff that happened 30 years ago as well as stuff that was very difficult was not top on her agenda. Plus, she wasn’t sure anybody wanted to hear about it. Especially since the response to her campaign in '72 was not exactly overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

I was able to talk her into by, I think, tapping into the teacher in her. It also took flowers and chocolate and several phone calls…I was getting borderline stalker.

[Laughter]

Fast forward a year or so later when I'm doing the interviews, and one of the women I interviewed pulled me aside after the interview and she said, "You seem like a very nice young lady, so I'm going to tell you this. I hope you don't take it the wrong way: But you have to stop with the chocolates. Mrs. C had apparently said, "Oooh, she's very nice, but she keeps sending me chocolates. What's that about?" [Laughter]

DPT:
[Laughter] Some unorthodox practices, but you accomplished what you set out to accomplish, so…whatever works.

SL:
Exactly

DPT:
As you learned more about her, was there anything you discovered during the making of the film that surprised you?

SL:
I was really surprised at how little information there was out in the world about her, and about this run for president. Even within the presidential political arena, I had to work very hard to find information about her. So my sense was that the run was largely symbolic, and there would be some people who were gung-ho about it. But what I discovered is that there were circumstances that made her candidacy viable, which she was taking advantage of. [These circumstances] were presented there for her, and she was jumping in to see what she could make of them.

First, there was the change in the voting age from 21 to 18. So this was the first election where about 10 million young voters were going to be participating; they'd just been enfranchised. That had to do with the Vietnam War. "Listen, if I'm old enough to go off and fight in a war, then I'm old enough to vote."

And with the Civil Rights Acts being passed in the mid-'60s, they are actually being implemented in the later '60s, early '70s. So there is an influx of blacks coming to the political process, many for the first time, and feeling like they can be part of the process. As well, the women's movement is being galvanized, and women are starting to think politically as a group.

But [also], Mrs. C had a political strategy. And that had to do with winning enough primaries to win enough delegates to take to the Convention because the nominee was decided at the Convention. There wasn't a strong Democratic front-runner. For instance, if Bobby Kennedy had not been killed in '68, it might have been a different ballgame in '72. But there were 13 people running in that race, including her.

In those days, the rules were--except for winner-take-all states--if you won a percentage of the vote, you won that percentage of the delegates. So she could pick up a few delegates in these states if she could win 3% of the vote, 5% of the vote--she picked up as much as 9% of the vote in primary races--and go to the Convention with delegate strength. If it was going to be really close--and everyone predicted it would be so close--in order for the nominee to be selected, they might need her 30 or 50 or 100 or 1,000 delegate votes to be the Democratic nominee. So in other words, she would have leverage, political leverage and currency, as opposed to currying favor. She understood that it was all about the delegate vote. It didn't turn out that way, but she had a plan, and she executed that plan.

What gets neglected in that two-dimensional view--oh, it was [symbolic], the novelty of her being black and a woman--is the fact that she was also a politician trying to play the political game the way everyone else was, as an individual…

She just didn't care what other people were thinking about her run. She wasn't going to let someone else's idea of her keep her from doing what she thought was right. She didn't wait for permission. In the ranking of race and gender, you know women of color are low on the list.

DPT:
Right. She would have been waiting a long time.

SL:
Exactly. So, her point was, "Why do I have to wait? Who made those rules up?" I think women like that are often portrayed as angry or difficult. So, the other thing I was surprised about was her tremendous sense of humor. And everybody who worked with her said she worked really hard and she was demanding, but she was also fun.

~~~~~

My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which comes all
kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency.
-- Shirley Chisolm

~~~~~

DPT:
She beat James Farmer, the former national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality, to win her House seat. At that time, did black men, black leaders of the day, take issue with her being a woman? Or were folks generally just happy to see one of us taking on the system?

SL:
There were a number of men who took issue with her being a woman. And it definitely had a lot to do with her personality. She is just as straightforward as the guys are. She's not really going to massage you…she wants to get down to it. The guys weren't exactly used to it. But there were younger guys, like [Congressman] Ron Dellums, who were more progressive.

DPT:
In the New York Times' review of Chisholm '72, the reviewer wondered if such things as failed strategies or other missteps doomed Mrs. Chisholm's bid for the Democratic nomination. Her belief, as you know, was that it all came down to not having enough "moolah." What do you think happened?

SL:
There are different ways of looking at winning and losing. When I was an athlete, there was only one way of winning: first across the line. But history and progressive change don't work that way. Can you imagine if the Civil Rights leaders and workers in the '40s and '50s had that attitude about dismantling segregation? Can you imagine if the Founding Fathers had said, "Those British are too tough…"

The approach is more like a scientist's. Scientists are always trying to push the limits, and they fail more than they succeed. But in their failing, they're learning and growing and getting closer. Shirley Chisholm was that way. So if you look at her race as "She didn't win the nomination," that's only one way to look at it, and frankly, that's not the way she looked at it.

DPT:
You have written about Ms. Chisholm: "I always appreciated that her story has messy, and sometimes jagged edges. I do not want her put on a pedestal and cleaned up. She was idealistic in her ability to move mountains and earnest when she stumbled." What were some of those jagged edges, those stumbles?

SL:
Well, one of the things I like about the '70s: people were not so media savvy. They're not so packaged and polished; they are themselves. Sometimes they're a little boring. Sometimes they talk too long. They don't talk in sound bites. You really get a sense of who they are and what they're thinking…

And [back then], even with the nightly news, in one of my favorite clips [from the film], Shirley Chisholm is announcing her run for president, and Walter Cronkite is the anchor. And he says, "Well, actually, a bonnet has been tossed into the presidential race today."

DPT:
He could never get away with saying that today. And another thing that's telling of the times is that it wasn't all over the op-ed pages and she didn't file a complaint and he didn't lose his job.

SL:
And people asked her about that, and she said, "Listen, if I was worried about every person's comments, I wouldn't be able to get any work done. It would be distracting, and it would keep me from doing what I'm trying to do." So she was really good about letting that stuff roll off her back. And she had her community of people around her who supported her, as well as her husband.

DPT:
Nowadays, we have this misplaced sense of outrage. But she was outraged about the system and the people it left out, not about somebody making a bonnet comment.

SL:
Absolutely. Ron Dellums says in the documentary--and this is a crucial point--she wasn't demanding to get in. She was asserting her right to be there. And that is different. When you demand, you give the other person the power to deny you, to grant you or deny you. She wasn't demanding; she was asserting her right to be there, and she was there, and then you had to deal with her! [Laughter] She created space for herself, and some people didn't like it and she didn't care.

People who got to see her and experience her realized that she was not just this two-dimensional person, "fighting, angry Shirley Chisholm" that you saw on the news or read about in the paper. They saw that there was dimension, that she had a strategy and was working to bring people into the process. It wasn't just about her…

I'm not interested in "uplift" storytelling--sanitizing someone to the point where they aren't real and human, without fault. What I love about history is the philosophy in it, the questions that are raised and the moral problems that are posed in particular circumstances. Watching somebody else try and answer those questions, helps you formulate the questions for yourself and how you might answer them. I'm not interested in didactic storytelling, [i.e.] you should know her because of this. I want you to feel the Chisholm Trail and make up your own mind…

DPT:
You were an associate producer on Ken Burns' Jazz series and his film about architect Frank Lloyd Wright. What specific lessons did you draw from those experiences and apply to Chisholm '72?

SL:
The way Ken Burns and Florentine Films, his production company, approach filmmaking is extremely professional. The standards are high. Ken Burns will raise as much money as he needs to for us to work on something as long as it needs to be worked on. At the time, I didn't realize that being able to raise money like that is a unique position to be in. I got to be a fly on the wall when [Burns] and the producers were having conversations about story, about who they would interview and why, and how that would fit into the story, and then how the story would be crafted in the editing room. Just to be there through the process, watching other people making these decisions…I didn't realize how much I learned until I tried to apply it myself.

DPT:
Were there aspects to those endeavors where you said when I'm the director I'm going to do this differently?

SL:
One of the greatest things was working on the Jazz project. One of the things you learn from jazz musicians is, you apprentice with the greats and learn as much as you can. But the point is not to go off and copy so-and-so's style. The point is to find your own way and your own voice. And I felt like this was my opportunity to do it, and one of the ways I wanted to do that was through a story about a woman who was still alive. So, I was talking to people who had lived that history, not historians who have thought about and packaged history. But listen, I'm a historian; I love history! [Laughter]…

[Mrs. C's] spirit and personality are so big, that I needed to find a way to equal that visually…We don't have any narration in movie. I found that as soon as I sat down to think about narration, it became so descriptive. And she's not about adjectives; she's about verbs. She's a verb! So that was important to me.

DPT:
Congratulations on your film being featured on PBS's POV on February 7, and on the upcoming DVD release on March 1st.

SL:
Thank you.

DPT:
Chisholm '72 was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and you've screened it around the country, including at the Democratic National Convention last year. Your goal was to get this film out around the time of last year's election. Why was that important to you?

SL:
Because it's a story about presidential politics. We don't often take our civic duty particularly seriously, and I think it's an important duty. It's a right that we have that we should exercise. This takes us back to point in the film with Ron Dellums again. He was a young man at the time [of Chisholm's run], and he'd seen Martin Luther King speak. And he said one of the things Martin Luther King used to say was, the most radical act that African-Americans can engage in is to assert the full measure of their citizenship. And in 1972, this black woman, Shirley Chisholm is doing that. But think about that. We were fighting for the ability to assert the full measure of our citizenship, and a lot of us don’t even vote…

We interviewed [sci-fi writer] Octavia Butler, and one of the things she said was about power. She used to think of it as a nasty thing. But she began to understand that power is just a tool. And if you don't have it, someone else will and they will make decisions for you, and you'll have to live with them. So opting out is a political decision.

DPT:
I was really impressed by your desire to make it a film that was larger than Shirley Chisholm, in that regard. You've said this film is about presidential politics, not "here's a great black woman to know about for Black History Month." Though obviously it's great for such films to be aired during Black History Month, for you to take that aim celebrates what Shirley Chisholm was all about.

SL:
And black women know this more than anybody else: We are not just our race. And we aren't just our gender either.

DPT:
And you can't pick one. You can't separate the two, though people on either side ask us to do it--

DPT and SL:--all the time!

SL :
So it's even more obvious, being women of color, that we are going to be lots of things. So ultimately what we want to do is be good at whatever we're trying to be good at.

~~~~~

I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States.
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 not the candidate of any political bosses
or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.
-- Shirley Chisholm

~~~~~

DPT:
I know you hoped for a limited theatrical release for the film, but there had been difficulties solidifying a distribution deal to make this happen. What ultimately happened? Were you able to get a limited release?

SL:
No. We were offered a deal coming out of Sundance, but that deal turned out not to be a real deal. And it took four months for that to happen, though, which meant that there was no time for exercising other options. The thing about being at Sundance that's so great is that you get all this exposure. But [because those four months went by] whatever other options we might have had in that respect were already dried up. And there also wasn't enough time being that the PBS broadcast was originally supposed to be in the fall of 2004, and it had been pushed back to Black History Month 2005 to accommodate this deal…

DPT:
Then you couldn't change it again to accommodate a different deal.

SL:
Exactly. So, the Brooklyn Academy of Music offered to host the film for a week, which was great.

How documentaries live is through home video, so I am just thrilled and we worked really hard to get this deal with 20th Century Fox.

DPT:
So that was on the distribution side. As far as securing funding to make the film, how did you go about that?

SL:
Grant-writing.

DPT:
I've also read that Chisholm '72 was funded in part by Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey and Bill and Camille Cosby and Bette Midler? How were you able to bring them on board?

SL:
I had this funny idea that [singer] Babyface and his wife were going to fund the whole thing…because I had seen that they made movies through their production company. So somebody was like, "I think I know his manager," Ramon Hervey. So I connected with him and pitched to him--showed him my proposal, the trailer tape, the budget, all my stuff. He said, "I doubt they're going to be interested, but I'll see what I can do." And they weren't interested, but he came back to me and said, "You know what? I think I can raise money for you." So, that's how that happened.

The other thing about fund-raising is that it takes a long time. It's not a quick process, and you have to factor that in.

DPT:
So did you raise some funds and then start, and then continue raising funds as you worked?

SL:
No. I knew that I wouldn't be able to finish the film on time if I did that. So I wasn't going to start until I had all the money. Period. Though I did call in favors to make the trailer tape, so I had something to show.

~

I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.
The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready'
to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start."

-- Shirley Chisholm, in her book The Good Fight

~

DPT:
Are there any black women, or women in general, on the current political landscape who you think embodies Shirley Chisholm's fighting spirit, her willingness to aim high starting at grassroots?

SL:
Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, definitely. She wasn't even a registered voter until she heard Mrs. Chisholm speak in 1972, and she became part of her campaign. When [Lee] stood up against the Patriot Act, that was important. Barbara Boxer is out there speaking her mind…and Maxine Waters…these California ladies really have it together, I gotta say.

DPT:
You've talked about some other stories which, like Chisholm '72, need to be told. What are the stories you want to tell going forward?

SL:
I have a bunch, and I'm trying to develop them. And mostly they are about people who are still alive. So, until I have permission and know that I can get it off the ground, I won't really talk about them.

DPT:
It's obviously easy to call Shirley Chisholm an inspiration, but as you look back on the process of getting to know her and what she stood for and what she accomplished, how did she inspire you?

SL:
Her spirit, her unbought and unbossed spirit. That's what I'd like to keep alive. No matter what we do--whether we're in politics or teaching, whatever we do in life and in our personal lives as well--if we can maintain our individual integrity and learn to be in touch with who we are. I like to say she's an ordinary woman who pulled out the extraordinary in her. And we all have a little bit of that in us.

~~~~~

I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.
That's how I'd like to be remembered.--Shirley Chisholm

~~~~~

Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, at the age of 80.

As noted above, Chisholm ’72 - Unbought & Unbossed had its national broadcast premiere on PBS’s P.O.V. documentary series on Monday, February 7th (check local listings for rebroadcasts). Fox Home Entertainment will release the DVD and VHS on March 1, 2005. For more information check out the website: http://www.chisholm72.net/

This interview could not have happened without the assistance of Ellene Miles at The DuVernay Agency. Thank you Ellene!



Back to "On The Box"


So, what do you think of this show, or of the above commentary on it? Fill out the information below to let us know...


Would you like a response? Of course! Nah, not really...
Name:
Email address: (required)
What's your URL?

How did you find out about our site?
Link from another website   
soc.culture.african.american
rec.arts.movies.reviews
other Usenet newsgroup   
email or mailing list   
search engine
other referral method   


    Which review are you commenting on?

    May we have your permission to post your comments on our site?
    Sure! Nope.

Comments (be as verbose as you'd like):


We take review requests! Movie/show review requested:


Want to share your thoughts and commentary with 3BC and others on this, or any other, show you've seen? Visit our "Viewer Voices" ™ webboard and let all of us hear what you have to say!


Search: Enter keywords...

Amazon.com logo


Home Page

Check this site weekly for more reviews!