Shola Lynch: I heard Shirley Chisholm's birthday announcement on NPR and I thought, "Oh my goodness, she's still alive." And at that point I only realized that she was the first black woman elected to Congress! When I did a little bit of research, and found out she ran for president, I was pissed. I mean, I was thinking, "I'm a reasonably educated person, I should have known this." The more research I did, the more I thought this would be a great story.
All of this was happening in the lead-up to 2000. With everything that went wrong in that election, I figured this was a great way for issues of presidential politics, equality, participation and democracy to be discussed. They come up through her story, and then as a filmmaker I don't have to be didactic about it. This is not some symposium on democracy and equality, you know, it's a great political story, through which questions are raised.
POV: How did you get Shirley Chisholm to participate?
Shola: I had the hardest time finding her, because she sees herself as a retired person, out of politics. So it took me months to even find a phone number for her. It actually happened in a very New York way. I met a guy in a bar. Went on a date. He was casually talking about how his mom is retired in Florida, and had this barbecue for Shirley Chisholm. I hadn't told him anything about the film or my interest, you know. He introduced me to his mother through the phone and the mail, and I was able to get an address and a phone number for Mrs. Chisholm.
Once I actually wrote her a letter and explained this project, I called her up to follow up, and she said, "I don't really have time. I don't know." And so I said, "Okay, this doesn't seem like a good time, can I call you another time so we can discuss it?" And so it happened, over a series of conversations. Finally, I filibustered her. I got on the phone, I paced, I was sweating, and I explained to her why I thought the story was important. It has to do with future generations, and it has to do with what American history is about. Finally, she just laughed and said, "Okay, okay, okay, I can see I'm not going to get rid of you." She never thought I would actually raise the money to do it. So when I went back to interview her last year, she had to admit she never expected that it would come this far! But she's a woman of her word.
POV: What was at the heart of her reservations?
Shola: I think her reservations had to do with her distrust of the media and of the political system. In some ways, her story is a really sad one. I know that what she didn't want to portray is bitterness. But that was a really difficult period. She was called crazy. She was completely dismissed by so many of her colleagues. She went into incredible debt. All this because she was a woman of principle, and felt it was important for future generations for her to follow through. She thought, "What signal would that send, if I drop out when the going gets hard?" I mean, talk about conviction.
POV: What was most difficult in making this film?
Shola: Getting people to come on board, to be interviewed, and to be forthcoming was one of the big difficulties. Shirley Chisholm is still alive. Nobody wants to be critical of someone who is still alive. There's a lot of behind the scenes political strategizing that isn't generally made public knowledge, and so the question for people was, how do you talk about that? My assumption was that because this story was thirty years old, these political issues were dead and gone. I was surprised to find how right here they still were for many of the people that participated.
POV: What else surprised you?
Shola: I did not expect to develop a fondness for her and such deep respect for her integrity. I thought it was a good story, and, you know, I admired her, but as I learned more about what she confronted, how she didn't really care what other people thought, that she had motivations that were pure to her, and that she was able to march through very difficult times, I thought, "She is amazing!" No one told her she should do it. No one said, "Yeah, you know what? It's your time to run for president." In fact, no one ever said to her, "You know what? You should run for Congress." The establishment didn't support her, yet she still found the courage and support through non-traditional means. She found a way. You know, if we want to be Zen about it, like flowing water, she found her path.
POV: What would you say are the themes of Chisholm '72?
Shola: I think there are various themes that come out of the film. Some of them are deeply personal. I know for me, I am energized by knowing a story about a woman with so much courage and integrity. It's something that I could personally apply to every part of my life. The second important theme is that democracy is not a spectator sport. If we think about citizenship, we have to also think about participation. I mean, it's really easy to complain, on a really local level: "Oh, the garbage doesn't get picked up, oh, schools suck, blah, blah, blah." But, then, what is our responsibility? By participating, there is actually agency. We can create the world that we want to live in. And I know people are going to say, "Ah, Pollyanna B.S. right?" But I think that we have more agency than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
But one of the things I was certain about is that I didn't want this to be an uplift tale. This is not a rah-rah "great woman" piece. It really is a look at this woman's run for president and the pros and the cons of that. I think that's a much more valuable lesson.
One of the questions that people like to ask is if Shirley Chisholm ran today would she have an easier time? I think in terms of the public's perception of her, yes, she would have an easier time. In terms of actually "running" for president, I think she would have a harder time. She was able to run with very little money, a completely novice grassroots organization. The rules at the time were that if you ran in a primary and you got X percent of the vote, you got delegates according to that percentage. Well, today you have to win 15 percent of the vote. Shirley Chisholm won 5 percent of the vote, 3 percent of the vote, 9 percent of the vote. She wouldn't have been a viable player at the convention. What she did is she took the delegates that she had, went to the convention and tried to bargain to make sure the platform included women's issues, civil rights issues, etc. A candidate today is not able to do that. There is this immediate "find the frontrunner" impulse that, I think, sometimes doesn't allow for as much discussion about what democratic politics are. Small d, democratic politics.
Links for more information:
- Tavis Smiley Interview with Shola Lynch
- Washington Post Interview with Shola Lynch
- General Information on Chisholm '72 (filmmaker site)