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  •  REVIEW: CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED

    Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed

    Shirley, you quest

    "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed" looks back at the controversial 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, and the still-present questions of ideals vs. pragmatism in politics.

    By ANDREA GRONVALL
    Offoffoff.com

    Politics is generally regarded as the art of compromise, where pragmatism and opportunism trump idealism almost every time, because the bottom line is about winning. With that standard, it's nothing short of amazing whenever any substantially different ideas are introduced into the process of governance.

      
    CHISHOLM '72: UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED
    Directed by: Shola Lynch.
    Featuring: Shirley Chisholm, Octavia Butler, Ron Dellums.
    Cinematography: Sandi Sissel.
    Edited by: Samuel D. Pollard, Sikay Tang.

    Related links: Official site
     SCHEDULE
    Bam Cinematek 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn (718) 636-4100

    In the 1972 Democratic race for the presidency of the United States, no one was as amazing as the House Representative from the 12th Congressional District of New York, Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for president. Only four years earlier, she had become the first African-American woman elected to Congress, and had promptly defied expectations by refusing an invitation to serve on the House Agriculture Committee, reasoning that its work had nothing to do with the needs of her constituents. More than her gender and race, that clear-sighted vision of her responsibilities to the voters, combined with her zeal for concrete social change, set her apart from the twelve other Democratic candidates in the campaign to unseat the incumbent Richard M. Nixon. "Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed" is not only a fascinating portrait of a leader the likes of whom we regrettably rarely see, it is also an instructive story about how the Democrats blew that election.


      
    Chisholm struggled not only against the white male establishment and the media, but also the members of the Congressional Black Caucus — then only three years old — whose power in the Beltway was then so tenuous they viewed her candidacy as unwelcome.  

      
    What's immediately striking from the very top of Shola Lynch's documentary is Chisholm's charisma, forged not so much by cosmetic elements (although she was a pretty snappy dresser back in the day) as by her fierce intelligence, and a flair for oratory that surpassed her competitors' — indeed, exceeds the public-speaking skills of most contemporary politicians. Her command of the English language was equaled by her command of facts, and she wasn't shy about challenging authority. When she was denied participation in televised appearances featuring other candidates, with the help of Tom Asher and his Media Access Project she took her case to the courts, who ordered the FCC to instruct the broadcast networks to include her. Power concedes nothing without struggle, she learned from the writings of Frederick Douglass — a lesson Chisholm applied throughout her run in the primaries.

    Chisholm struggled not only against the white male establishment and the media, but also the members of the Congressional Black Caucus — then only three years old — whose power in the Beltway was then so tenuous they viewed her candidacy as unwelcome. No one believed she could win, and many thought her bid for the nomination would only steal votes from an opponent deemed credible enough to beat Nixon. Archival interviews and footage show that as time went on Chisholm herself did not expect victory, but that only strengthened her resolve; the genius of her campaign was her recognition that she was paving the way for more women and persons of color to gain entrance to Washington's corridors. Over and over again, her idealism was expressed in the simple exhortation to vote, reiterating Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assertion that the most radical act African-Americans could perform was the full exercise of their citizenship. The influence of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also potent, manifested in a populism that cut across racial, gender and class lines.

    It's remarkable that Chisholm persisted in the face of so much ridicule, indifference, hostility and betrayal meted out by enemies and so-called friends alike. Fellow New Yorker John Lindsay told her point-blank she was ruining his chances. In the feminist camp, Bella Abzug was set against her, and Gloria Steinem ultimately threw her weight behind George McGovern. Within the Black Caucus, Walter Fauntroy threw 96 previously uncommitted delegates to McGovern, and Ron Dellums, one of her most steadfast supporters, abandoned her for McGovern as well. Tensions were so high she received three death threats; as Chisholm recalls them today she is visibly shaken, and in one of the film's most dramatically edited sequences, that interview abruptly cuts to footage of the attempted assassination of candidate George C. Wallace.

      
      In "Chisholm '72" we can see the start of the dissolution of the Movement, that brief, shining period when antiwar protesters, gay-rights pioneers, feminists, environmentalists and black, Latino and Native American activists found their similarities more powerful than their differences.
      
    Watching the trajectory of Chisholm's bid for the presidency is alternately sobering and exhilarating. "If you can't support me, or you can't endorse me, then get out of my way," she challenged, snapping, "You do your thing, and let me do mine." Did she add to the divisiveness among Democrats, aiding Nixon's landslide win against McGovern? Or did she perform an invaluable service by resolutely keeping issues front and center, such as her insistence that pouring 75% of the national budget into the Vietnam war was unconscionable?

    The paradox of her campaign was that although she was a tireless coalition builder (even inspiring the Black Panthers to channel some of their militant anger into wide-reaching community voter drives), that very strength made her a threat. In "Chisholm '72" we can see the start of the dissolution of the Movement, that brief, shining period when antiwar protesters, gay-rights pioneers, feminists, environmentalists and black, Latino and Native American activists found their similarities more powerful than their differences. As politicos and other players vied to swing the Democratic convention their way, special interests jockeyed with the populist agenda Chisholm espoused.

    Thirty-two years later the global landscape is vastly different, and the art of American politics is more than ever determined by deep pockets and dealmaking. By stubbornly remaining "unbought and unbossed," Shirley Chisholm lost her shot at the presidency, but her distinguished career of congressional service continued until her retirement in 1988. That may not have been the realization of her deepest hopes, but it is a success story nonetheless.

    SEPTEMBER 27, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed:

  • Excellent!!!   from Brandy, Aug 7, 2007
  • black history   from lanodia williams, Feb 24, 2008

  • Post a comment on "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed"