Producers: Regina King, Reina King, Anikah McLaren, Elizabeth Haggard and John Ridley  Director: John Ridley   Screenplay: John Ridley   Cast: Regina King, Lance Reddick, Lucas Hedges, Terrence Howard, André Holland, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christina Jackson, Michael Cherrie, Dorian Crossmond Missick, Amirah Vann, W. Earl Brown, Brad James, Reina King, Ken Strunk and Charlene R. Willis   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: C

Shirley Chisholm was a remarkable person, the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representative (in 1968) and the first African American to seek a major party’s presidential nomination (in 1972).  Now she is the subject of this Netflix film focused on her unsuccessful quest for the Democratic nod ultimately won by George McGovern, who went on to be defeated in a landslide by the incumbent Richard Nixon, who would of course shortly resign in the midst of the Watergate scandal.  Unlike Chisholm, writer-director John Ridley’s movie is a thoroughly unremarkable affair, notable only for some strong performances, especially by Regina King in the title role.

The film opens with a brief, perfunctory prologue about Chisholm’s pre-1972 career, ending with her entrance into Congress, the condescending treatment she received from her white male colleagues, and butting heads with Speaker John McCormack (Ken Strunk) over her appointment to the Agriculture Committee (on which, in fact, she did some important work, unmentioned here).  It briskly moves on to 1972, when Chisholm, a woman of principle (and, as a former teacher, of schoolmarmish mien), feels compelled to keep her promise to put her name on the Florida primary ballot for president if backers there raised enough funds—this despite strong doubts from her chief advisor Mac Holder (Lance Reddick) and fundraiser Arthur Hardwick Jr. (Terrence Howard) and reluctance on the part of her ordinarily supportive husband Conrad (Michael Cherrie).

From that point the film follows her campaign through the convention at which McGovern won the nomination, emphasizing several important threads.  One involves Chisholm’s resistance to advice, not just from Holder and Hardwick but from seasoned, pragmatic campaign manager Stanley Townsend (Brian Stokes Mitchell).  Another focuses on her encouragement of volunteers, particularly Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges), a young man who postpones his education to serve as her chief outreach to young people, and Barbara Lee (Christina Jackson), a young woman whose reluctance even to register to vote she overcomes—foreshadowing Lee’s own entrance into the arena later.  A third touches on the impact the process has on Chisholm’s marriage, with Conrad’s concern about the family finances coupled with his failure, as security chief, to prevent an assassination attempt on Chisholm.

This is all treated with little energy by Ridley, with primary after primary gliding by without much drama (and with most contextual detail elided), until the convention arrives and Chisholm is caught up in political reality—the inability to depend on friends like reserved California congressman Ron Dellums (Dorian Crossmond Missick), an early supporter, or rivals like Walter Fauntroy (André Holland), the ultra-slick District of Columbia representative in the House, who reneges on promises to her.  But Chisholm’s learned some tricks herself, following aspiring lawyer Gottlieb’s advice about taking on the TV networks for keeping her out of debates, and then teaming up with other campaigns to contest the winner-take-all primary rules that stacked the delegate count for McGovern, even if doing so irks her sense of fairness.

Unfortunately, even while these narrative turns bring some political spark to a generally placid, dangerously hagiographical treatment, Ridley’s dialogue in them is often prosaic or thudding.  A scene in which Chisholm graciously visits segregationist Governor George Wallace (W. Earl Brown) after he’s been wounded by a would-be assassin is simply maudlin, mixing earnestness with piety.  A last-reel episode about Diahann Carroll (Amirah Vann) arranging a meeting between Chisholm and Huey P. Newton (Brad James) in hopes of securing the Black Panther leader’s endorsement in the crucial California primary initially brings some excitement but ultimately fizzles out.  And a running thread about Shirley’s sister Muriel (Reina King) discounting Chisholm’s run as just another instance of her showing off becomes part of the panegyric when Muriel acknowledges that Shirley actually is, as their father always suggested, the special one.  (Apparently this was an instance of the “Daddy always liked you better” syndrome.)

Throughout King is compelling as Chisholm, even when the material is humdrum, and most of the supporting cast—Reddick, Howard, Cherrie, Mitchell, Hedges, Jackson, Missick and Holland—give dedicated performances.  Technically this is a relatively small-scaled project, but the production design (Dina Goldman) and costumes (Megan “Bijou” Coates) reflect the time without ostentation, Ramsey Nickell’s cinematography is unfussy if a mite drab, and Joanne Yarrow’s editing integrates archival footage with the newly-shot material decently enough.

In the end, however, unlike its subject, “Shirley” is more dutiful than exceptional.  Terribly respectful and equally stolid, it’s a dry history lesson energized only by King’s committed turn and some solid work from the supporting cast. One might have hoped for more from Ridley who, after all, did the screenplay for “12 Years a Slave.”