Regina King says her biopic about Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign is also a story about 2024

Shirley Chisholm was the definition of a trailblazer. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress. She co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. And in one of her most audacious moves, in 1972 Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic nomination for president. Still, Regina King and her sister, Reina King, say the storied lawmaker is not as well known as she should be. That was the driving reason behind their new Netflix film “Shirley.”

Not only does Regina King play Chisholm, focusing on her bold run for president, she and Reina produced it through their own company, Royal Ties Productions. It’s a passion project that’s taken them 15 years to realize.

“Our understanding and awareness of Shirley Chisholm was mostly through our mother,” King told NBC News. “And then as we became young adults, we realized that so many people, not white people, but Black people would have no idea who we’re talking about when we mentioned her name.”

The King sisters enlisted Oscar winner John Ridley, who wrote and directed the film. Reina King said her sister first planted the seeds for this project when she and Ridley were working on the ABC series “American Crime,” which earned her two of her four Emmys. By 2019, they were off and running.

“I always date back to whatever year Regina won the Oscar because we literally had a meeting with John that next day and took the project out and pitched it to find a home,” Reina King said. “We always wanted John.”

Ridley’s approach to the Brooklyn-born trailblazer, partly raised in her mother’s native Barbados as a child, is an intimate one largely focusing on Chisholm’s inner circle and its interactions as she runs for president. That includes her husband, Conrad Chisholm (Michael Cherrie), her political mentor Wesley McDonald “Mac” Holder (Lance Reddick, in one of his last performances), fundraiser Arthur Hardwick (Terrence Howard), and white Ivy League-educated youth coordinator Robert Gottlieb (Lucas Hedges).

Beyond duplicating Chisholm’s signature gap, which was achieved by covering King’s own four front teeth with a custom piece, King paid close attention to the way she spoke and to whom she spoke, capturing the nuances of her public addresses.

“I could see and understand that she was a strategist and communicator and understood the importance of all the different styles and ways she would need to communicate for not just messaging, but as a congresswoman to get things done, and work across party lines,” she said.

Chisholm’s friendly relationship with George Wallace, Alabama’s infamous segregationist governor, as well as her later association with the Black Panther Party is also explored.

The tension between Chisholm and her sister Muriel St. Hill is another interesting highlight, with Reina King coming out of retirement from acting, after more than 30 years, to play her. That move, Reina shared, was Ridley’s idea.

After considering it and speaking with her sister — who was no help, Reina said — she accepted the role. “I realized one, Regina and I’ve never played in something together,” she said. “As important as this project has been to both of us, it was special for us to come together and work as actresses.”

Regina King noted that her interaction with her sister and Chisholm’s with hers helped feed the story. “Reina was lucky enough to have conversations with Muriel long beforehand, not knowing that she was going to be playing her,” she said.

The film portrays the tension between Chisholm, who died in 2005, and her sister. Yet when the Kings approached St. Hill years later, with interest in telling her sister’s story, she was receptive. One of several conversations St. Hill had with Reina, Regina said, helped guide how they presented the Chisholm sisters’ relationship in the film.

“I remember her sharing with me after she had spoken to Muriel of how much it meant for her to have her sister’s story told and to hear that knowing that they had some time in their lives where they weren’t so close and just having that little bit of knowledge that Muriel did have pride in her sister and what her sister accomplished gave us a place to go,” Regina said.

St. Hill, Reina said, did live to see the film greenlighted, but died before it was completed.

Another woman in Chisholm’s life who gets the big screen treatment is Barbara Lee, then a young activist who worked on Chisholm’s presidential campaign. Decades later, the outgoing California congresswoman is among the most senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Lee is thrilled with Christina Jackson’s portrayal of her. “It was like meeting me. Talk about a humbling experience,” she said to NBC News via telephone en route to the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “They cast her perfectly.”

And she feels the same about King’s performance. For Lee, who once witnessed Cicely Tyson breathe life into the words written by her son Tony Lee for the film “The Road to Galveston,” King’s acting chops are more than comparable. It affected her even more deeply because of the deep affection she still holds for Chisholm.

“With Regina, it was like, ‘Oh my goodness what an actress, what a person who could embody not only Shirley’s beauty, her diction, her language, her voice, her accent, but her spirit.’”

Lee, who recently lost her bid for the U.S. Senate, would never have served at all if it had not been for Chisholm, she said. At the time Lee was an activist who did not believe politicians could effectively make change.

“I didn’t believe democracy was really working for people like me and others,” she said. “She convinced me that I could make a difference politically through the political process.”

Lee knows Chisholm’s message is still critical today. “I’m so happy the film is coming out now, especially during this moment where so many people feel disconnected to the political process and can see how she forced it to respond to her and wouldn’t just stand on the sidelines. She was determined that she was going to be seen, heard and make significant changes.”

King concurs. “So many things that were happening during the ‘70s and 2024 feels the same,” she said. “I keep saying if Shirley were alive today, she’d be on the ballot, and she’d be president.”