‘Shirley’ 2024 Ending And Film Explained: Did Ron Dellum Betray Shirley Chisholm?

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No 2-hour film could ever hope to fully capture the “100 pounds of nuclear energy” that was Shirley Chisholm. But John Ridley’s Shirley encapsulates just enough of that magnetic optimism to get us familiar with a woman who never had just one goal in any of her pursuits. Regina King is breathtaking as she embodies the unconquerable quality that made Shirley the woman who was a catalyst for change in the political landscape of America. While chronicling Shirley’s tumultuous presidential campaign in 1972, the Netflix film finds a way to have a broader perspective and celebrates the ferocious mouthpiece for racial and gender equality that was Shirley Chisholm.

Spoiler Alert


Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

Ridley’s Shirley skips past the unimaginable struggle it must’ve taken for a Black school teacher in the racist 60s America to be elected to the United States Congress. And for her to be a Black woman standing amidst the middle-aged White male crowd making up the biggest chunk of US Congress, no one present in this historical event had any doubt that Shirley was there to change things up. The smile on her face as she takes on this new battle and the expectations that come with becoming the first Black woman to become a congressman says everything about how confident she is in her abilities to stride forward. Shirley’s fight has never quite been about proving herself. It’s been about doing the work that needs to be done. And since she’s the one who can’t dream of not doing everything in her capacity for women, racial minorities, and the working class, Shirley hasn’t wasted time sitting around thinking about the obstacles in her path. Time is something that is of utmost significance to Shirley. So, instead of taking the assignment she’s handed and waiting her turn to be able to do something meaningful for the people—even as a fresh new face in Congress hated by her bigoted colleagues—Shirley confronts the Speaker of the House and gives him a piece of her mind. 


How does Shirley get into the presidential race?

The plight of the downtrodden gnawed at Shirley. And there’s only so much that she can do as the representative for the 12th Congressional District. It’s even made impossible for her to do as much as she wants to do for the workers, the Black communities, and the Hispanics in Brooklyn. So when Mac and Arthur show up on her doorstep with the news that the Committee to Elect Chisholm in Florida has raised double the amount that Shirley asked for and now wants her to make good on her promise, she gets the first boost of confidence to dream bigger. She promised the committee that she’d put her name on the ticket for the primary elections. So, in the face of Mac’s cynicism over Shirley’s chance of winning the candidacy for the Democratic Party, she comes back with a “why not?” The state of chaos that Nixon’s presidency has left the country in has made it all the more important for someone like Shirley to take the reins. And as someone even White college boys believe in, Shirley at least has to take the shot and fight the fight. 


What was the message of Shirley’s campaign?

The 1972 Chisholm Trail was a bare-bones campaign. Shirley neither had the funding nor the endorsement to make the journey a bit smoother. What she did have was her indomitable determination and a clear vision regarding her position. It was only their faith in Shirley that got Mac and Arthur to come on board. And as the long-suffering spouse who’s never seen her back down from a challenge, Conrad couldn’t dream of not doing everything he could for Shirley’s campaign. Even 21-year-old Cornell student Robert, who’d been mesmerized by Shirley’s undaunting fight against racial and gender discrimination, agreed to lend his time and efforts as the National Student Coordinator. Even though campaign manager Stanley had his qualms about how Shirley planned to reach her base, her mind remained unchanged about what she was running for—giving back the politics to the people. What was strikingly refreshing about Shirley’s warcry was her belief that the Americans knew what they wanted and what they needed. Votes and people’s clarity regarding who they’re voting for were of all the more importance in 1972, given that was the first year when 18-year-olds were given the right to vote.

So, instead of the boring old rhetoric that she knew the Americans were tired of hearing, Shirley gave them the unabashed truth about the grim reality at home and outside. Her aim was, as ardently voiced by her amidst crowds of supporters and naysayers, to end the miseries of all those who were discriminated against. She didn’t even hesitate to address the troubling allergy the country had to gender politics. As a staunch advocate for women’s rights, Shirley hoped to become the glaring proof that women were so much more than the preconceived notions and expectations shackling the gender. A wholesome sign that her campaign itself was doing a lot of good for the people was a gathering of students giving 25-year-old Barbara Lee a chance to meet her mentor and reject her cynicism over the effectiveness of democracy. Eager to do her part in something revolutionary, single mother Barbara was frustrated by the low bar set for the White male candidates, who were just a notch better than Nixon. Shirley doesn’t just help her see how ineffective democracy becomes when voting is rejected for the crime of being bourgeois; she also gives all that raw energy a channel as Barbara joins her campaign. 


How was Shirley’s presidential campaign going?

Stanley was never too hopeful about Shirley’s prospects. But what agitated him even more was that Shirley was practically impossible to guide. She did what she thought was right, whether or not it would prove to be beneficial for the campaign. It’s understandable how the lack of nuanced thinking made it hard for the men to understand Shirley’s rejection of a national Black convention in Gary and a chance to speak at an exclusively men’s club. But even as Barbara’s offer to join the convention on her behalf is rejected, we are explicitly told her reasons behind these decisions. While a staunch feminist, Shirley’s pride in her feminine identity made her disregard the male-dominated spaces, which weren’t going to lend an ear to what she had to say. And when her Bajan and Christian identities conflicted, Shirley always took the side of her roots. Barbara’s impatience and need for instant gratification, however, made her turn to the Black Panthers.

California, being a winner-take-all state when it came to delegates, was out of the question for Shirley’s campaign, even though it was the highest student voter state as well. So when Shirley rejected the states that she thought already belonged to the likes of McGovern, Mackie, Humphrey, and Wallace, Stanley flinched. He was all the more concerned when she chose to campaign in Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and, to his relief, Florida. Fellow Congressman Ron Dellum’s support and endorsement were a significant source of hope for Shirley. But all the back-bending work, the rallies, and the fundraising couldn’t get her more than 1-4% of the of the votes in the states where she campaigned. And no amount of bullying she’d endured or even the murder attempt on her could turn people’s eyes to the woman who was just trying to fight the good fight because their pain agonized her. She needed 1500 delegates to grab the nomination at the convention, and so far, even with Ron’s promised ones, she only had 28. Stanley’s fit of rage over the stolen fund might’ve given Shirley the chance to show the man his place, but the effects his departure left on the campaign proved heavy. 


What effects did the campaign have on Shirley’s family?

The thing about Shirley was that she didn’t think she was special. She was the way she was because she didn’t know any other way to be. Empathy was such a loud part of who she was that it was impossible for her to not take people’s struggles personally. And that’s something people close to her failed to understand. Shirley’s sister’s treatment of her is only vinegary because she takes Shirley’s distance from her and their mother as an act of rejection. She blames it on their father for filling her “daydreaming” and “crazy” sister’s heads with a bloated sense of self. And being this brutally misunderstood isn’t easy for Shirley to handle in the middle of an already difficult campaign. What can unhesitantly be said about Shirley’s husband is that he understands Shirley. What makes this couple work for as long as they do is his noticeably healthy way of communicating everything he’s sacrificing for her dreams. He knows not to make the futile attempt at trying to dissuade her when she’s set her mind to something. So even if it takes existing on the sidelines and letting her drain their own pockets for the campaign, Conrad is willing to do it all for Shirley’s vision. The mutual respect that keeps their conflicts from taking an unkind shape is evident in the sincerity with which they describe each other in the press interview. While their separating hands may seem as though they weren’t honest in the interview, I see it as their way of acknowledging the problems they have while knowing there’s a lot that they admire about each other. They eventually did part ways, but it’d always been evident that Shirley and Conrad were immensely respectful and affectionate toward each other. 


Why did the Blank Panther Party endorse Shirley?

No one thing about her could ever define Shirley as a whole. She was Black, a woman, a true fighter for the working class, and a devoted Christian. Obviously, when push comes to shove, Shirley and Alabama Governor George Wallace didn’t see eye-to-eye on most things. For starters, he was a racist who claimed otherwise and called himself a segregationist. But when this man was shot and told that he’d spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, despite knowing the chaos it’d stir among her supporters, Shirley went to see him to do her part as a Christian. Sure, she used this opportunity to try to inspire change in the man who just had a close brush with death, but her Black followers and the Black Panthers saw this as an act of Shirley betraying her own people. Most of Shirley’s decisions usually led to a domino effect—mostly good ones. Her bold move to have Robert sue the “Big Three,” CBS, NBC, and ABC, for not giving her a shot to take part in the debates eventually culminated in Robert winning the suit at the appellate court. And while that win itself proved beneficial to the campaign, her statements on TV impressed Huey Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party. The official endorsement from the Black Panthers certainly helped her become a more familiar face to the voters and the delegates. It changed nothing about the way the primary elections were always supposed to go in California, though. Willie Brown’s bitter claims, born out of his wish to have a monopoly over the Black delegates, stung Shirley even worse, knowing he was a puppet in the hands of McGovern, the man who won in California by a landslide and bagged a big chunk of the delegates. 


Did Ron Dellum betray Shirley Chisholm?

There was a reason Shirley took the setbacks in her 1972 presidential campaign personally. It hurt her deeply that the same people she’d worked tirelessly for, the Black men and the White women, forgot to be there for her when it counted. While the stigma around her gender was mentioned quite a few times as the biggest hurdle in her path to the presidential nomination, Shirley was seldom loud in its protest against it. Instead, the problem with Shirley having to prove her effectiveness in a male-dominated world that didn’t take her seriously was explored subtly. But you can’t just go by the fact that everyone who was vehemently against Shirley’s pursuit of the nomination was a man. That’s sort of a given, considering there were hardly any women around to stand in her path. You have to recognize the way the naysayers and the non-believers looked at it—to them, a woman, that too a Black one, running for President was a joke. At that time, it was a country run by men who were not yet terrified by the prospect of gender equality; they had to at least take it seriously to be scared that it would one day be the way the world works. Willie Brown felt entitled to the Black delegates in America because he couldn’t imagine a Black woman coming into his turf and taking what he believed belonged to him. 

Shirley’s campaign team, and maybe even Shirley herself, was close to giving up hope of reaching the convention until Muskie and Humphrey’s campaign managers planned to challenge the results in California. Now that their candidates were deprived of the delegates they felt they deserved, they deemed it a mockery of democracy that all the delegates went to McGovern. While she was warned against trusting Walter Fauntroy, Shirley was aware that making a deal with the man was better than being steamrolled by him. She was promised all his Black delegates if she took herself out of the run in DC. Shirley counted on Fauntroy to deliver. Joining Mackie and Humphrey’s suit against the California ruling would ensure their Black delegates pledge to her instead. If things were to go as planned, Shirley would have enough delegates to her name to participate in the first round at the convention. With the date closing in, Shirley didn’t have the choice to take the high road. She could do far more good as President than the righteous woman who chose not to side with the middle-aged White men. Shirley’s words reached the Black delegates, and a considerable number of them switched their pledge to “the only Black woman crazy enough to run for President.”

During Shirley‘s ending, as the campaign team rejoiced at this unprecedented emergence of hope, something bad was going down behind Shirley’s back. It was sort of expected that Walter Fauntroy would turn out to be a snake and side with McGovern. But Ron Dellums, the one friend and colleague whom Shirley blindly counted on, turned his back on her at the last moment and gave his endorsement and delegates to McGovern. The matter of fact was that none of them could believe that Shirley could go all the way, even if she got the nomination. Ron Dellums stood by Shirley’s side for as long as he could but finally broke to the pressures. Shirley wasn’t mad at her friend for the betrayal. The Christian in her was more concerned about how he’d beat himself up over it if she didn’t forgive him. Considering Ron Dellums and Shirley Chisholm remained lifelong friends, it should be alright to assume that they had mended their bond even after Ron’s last-minute shift that ended Shirley’s campaign. The win was so close that they could almost touch it. And there were no dry eyes in the room where Shirley mourned the end of her run. But as Shirley herself believed, even in the face of such an unfair loss, her campaign for the nomination wasn’t limited to a singular goal. She was the bringer of change. She hoped to be the one to look up to when people found it hard to believe in themselves. And that infectious optimism and spirit turned Barbara from a cynic to the highest-ranking Black woman in Democratic leadership in Congress as of today. Shirley’s run might’ve ended, but the hopeful change that it brought about was undeniable. She did indeed give politics back to the people and inspired a number of her staunch supporters to continue doing their part for the people of America. 


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Lopamudra Mukherjee
Lopamudra Mukherjee
In cinema, Lopamudra finds answers to some fundamental questions of life. And since jotting things down always makes overthinking more fun, writing is her way to give this madness a meaning.

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