Retracing the Chisholm Trail
Like most filmmakers, New York-based Shola Lynch is attracted to a good story. So when she learned about Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to successfully run for Congress in 1968 and, in 1972, to enter a presidential campaign, she was shocked to find little about Chisholm in traditional research archives. Fortunately for her, Chisholm was still alive and available to tell her story, and Lynch, camera in hand, was ready to listen. The result is an illuminating documentary, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, another offering in the always outstanding P.O.V. series.
A 1992 graduate of the University of Texas (as a Plan II Honors student) Lynch was only 2 years old during Chisholm's campaign. Were she influenced by the contemporary mainstream media's conception of Chisholm's run, Lynch might have been less than enthusiastic about her subject. In reporting Chisholm's candidacy, CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite said, "A new hat rather, a bonnet was tossed into the presidential race today."
"At the time there were only three networks, each with a half-hour news program," Lynch said in a phone interview from her New York home, "Chisholm's run was reduced to 'the black woman running for president' story. No one bothered to ask if she had a strategy. She did. She was serious, but not deluded."
Chisholm launched her campaign in a turbulent moment in U.S. history. The civil rights movement and the women's movement had gained momentum. The voting age had just been lowered from age 21 to 18. The nation was still reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. Vociferous and sometimes violent opposition to the Vietnam War continued to rock the nation. Taken together, the time was ripe for new voices to emerge.
"What I found incredible about her is she didn't let anyone's opinion of her dictate her," Lynch says. "She didn't ask for permission to run from the black political establishment or the women's movement, or anyone else. She organized around electoral politics in a way that hadn't happened in a long time. She found reasons historically and politically to run."
What Chisholm did do was inspire a "motley crew" of supporters buoyed by her drive and engaged with her vision of the future. Fortunately for Lynch, some of those attracted to Chisholm's run included young filmmakers Peter Lilienthal and the filmmaking team of Bob Denby and Tom Werner (now of TV production company Carsey-Werner-Mandebach). The resultant films, Chisholm for President and Shirley Chisholm: Pursuing the Dream, provide intriguing insider footage of Chisholm's campaign. With footage from these films, along with other archival material, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed provides more than a glorified image of Chisholm; it's a sharply focused portrait of the period.
"I hope my film doesn't put [Chisholm] on a pedestal, but that viewers will take away the excitement about civic engagement," Lynch says. "I hope that viewers will see why they should vote and see that it's a right that others in the world fight for. But I also hope they get an idea of Mrs. C's spirit. She embodied the best of the American spirit. She was an ordinary woman who pulled out the extra chutzpah. That's the story."
Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed airs Feb. 7 at 9pm and Feb. 10 at 3am on KLRU. It also airs on cable Channel KLRU 2 on Feb. 8 at 12mid. An excellent companion Web site can be found at www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/chisholm/index.html. There, Lynch offers some post-production thoughts and personal reflections following Chisholm's death on Jan. 1. Later this year, Lynch will be honored as an Outstanding Texas Ex at UT's 2005 commencement.
Not to Be Missed
Props to KLRU for launching the long-awaited Special Session. Produced and hosted by award-winning filmmaker Paul Stekler, the series features journalists, pundits, and notable Texans reflecting on issues faced by the 79th session of the Texas Legislature. The half-hour series airs across Texas and continues as long as the Lege is in session.
It premieres Thursday, Feb. 10, at 7:30pm (repeats on Sundays at 12:30pm). The themes of the first three episodes are: "Rick v. Kay vs. Carole," "Is the Media Still Relevant?" (Feb. 17), and "The Lobby and Lege" (Feb. 24). Check local listings for descriptions of future episodes.
The three-part documentary, Do You Speak American? continues on PBS. Part Two (Feb. 7, 10:30pm) focuses on El Cenizo, Texas, which adopted Spanish as its official language. In Part 3 (Feb. 14), Spanglish, Chicano slang, calo, and other linguistic variants are explored. Check local listings for more information.