POV: Tell us what was behind some of the unusual stylistic decisions you made with Chisholm '72 .
Shola Lynch: Well, stylistically, I hope this film fits the 70s sensibility in terms of the sounds, the music, certainly in terms of the footage. Everyone's outfits are just fabulous! Shirley Chisholm wears a fur, I mean how many presidential candidates wear furs?
Seriously, what I wanted to do was to approach historical documentary in a way that is, well, if I'm going to come up with a term, is kind of "historical cinema verité." I wanted the viewer to feel like they were there, although this story takes place thirty years ago. When someone watched the news thirty years ago, they brought a lot of information to the table that we're not familiar with today. So how do you help a viewer, particularly a young viewer, not to see just images but to understand the relationship between the images and the rhetoric and the times? I thought one of the ways to do that was to give multiple sources of information at one time. So, we used the split screen a lot.
I did not go to film school. I learned on the job as an apprentice and I worked for Ken Burns for a really long time. He has a distinct way of telling stories. I learned his process of storytelling, which as a frame of reference is amazing, but I didn't want to apply his vision of the world and his stylistic choices to myself and to Shirley Chisholm's story. What he is able to do very well, I think, is match a story with a style. But Shirley Chisholm's story is different. I let her story, her energy and vibrancy, dictate the style. And also the 70s, you know? So that it felt true to the period. I mean slow pans and violins in 1972 doesn't make any sense.
When I started the grant-writing process, I wrote about Shirley Chisholm as a hero-antihero. I compared her to some of the early Blaxploitation characters, like Pam Greer in Coffee: a woman in her 'hood, sees wrong, takes things into her own hands. Right? That's fictional. I wanted to tell Shirley Chisholm's story as the real life woman in the 'hood who takes things into her own hands. I think it's important for all hero-antiheroes to have theme songs when they're kicking ass and when they're getting their ass kicked. So, the music was one of my favorite parts of the documentary. Isaac Hayes' "Do Your Thing" is a twenty-minute song on the Shaft soundtrack and it was my theme song while making this film. Every time I got blue, I would put on the song, turn it up really loud and dance around the living room for twenty minutes and I would feel better. It became Chisholm's theme song for a while, until we found a composer, Barry Eastman, who did original music based on 70s stuff. I was really wary of that, but he did such an amazing job.
Basically, I love history, and I feel like historical stories are given short shrift. People think history is boring, and there's even sometimes the sense that documentaries are boring. So what I wanted to do with Chisholm's story was to make it a fun ride and an interesting ride, without dumbing down the subject matter. So hopefully that's what we've been able to do! That was certainly what we set out to do.
POV: You mention this idea of "historical cinema verité" did you see this film as defying "genre" definitions?
Shola: Well, this film is definitely not a "biography" and that was a conscious choice. I wanted to show a historical character, a woman, and her agency through action. I didn't want it to be an "accident of birth" story, to suggest that this was some incredibly extraordinary woman, touched by God, you know. She was very much an ordinary woman in a particular set of circumstances, who acted on her sense of morality, her sense of duty, her sense of citizenship. I mean, she was a schoolteacher who lived in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, had an interest in politics and worked for the local political club. She started off decorating cigar boxes. She then ran for State Assembly. Then she ran for Congress and won. And so she ran for president in that same vein. It wasn't that she set out one day to be president of the United States. It was kind of a natural evolution for a woman who lived in the community, cared for the people that she lived with and wanted to make the best life for those people and for herself. So I wanted this story to be about agency — I didn't want it to be about accidental birth or specialness. And I thought that telling her political story was the best way to do that.
One of the challenges was that there aren't any real experts on this topic. There weren't any experts then, and there are no experts now. I mean, this is a "living history" in the sense that it hasn't been codified or canonized by history professors. There is not one history book or political analysis of Chisholm's campaign or her political career. So what we had to do was primary research. We had to start with her story and then double-check it, and counter-check it with contemporaries, with what the footage was telling us, with Walter Cronkite. To try to find truth from all these various truths. We hope one of the things that comes out of this film is that someone writes a great book about her and her political campaign. To a large degree, she's been forgotten from the historical landscape.
For more information about Chisholm '72, visit chisholm72.net.