Photo courtesy of Bettman/Corbis

Shirley Chisholm, who died with her usual sense of occasion this January 1, not long after her 80th birthday, had a mouth on her and a mutinous way with authority figures — traits that come in handy when you are the first black woman to serve in Congress and only the second woman (long, long after the Equal Rights Party’s Victoria Woodhull, in 1872) to run for president of the United States. But they can also make you enemies, in Chisholm’s case not just among the old white men who dominated the American political establishment when she sought the Democratic nomination in 1972, but also among the very constituencies she sought to mobilize.

Chisholm swept into politics in 1968 on a wave of countercultural support from feminists and blacks riding the crest of the civil rights movement. But as Chisholm ’72 Unbought and Unbossed, Shola Lynch’s lively tribute to this recalcitrant former child-care worker from Brooklyn, shows, Chisholm’s 1972 bid for the presidency brought her only equivocal support from both the Congressional Black Caucus and leaders of the women’s movement, among them Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem. Whether by design or default, Lynch leaves it to us to decide whether they hesitated to endorse her over front-runner George McGovern because of a fundamental unwillingness to commit to an outsider (as Chisholm, well into her feisty 70s, recalls in the movie), or out of a politically savvy decision to go with the candidate who had the best chance of winning. As it turned out, the Democrats lost to the incumbent Nixon, but by then Chisholm, in a rousing speech of unity to a divided Democratic convention in Miami, had thrown in her lot with McGovern.

Lynch, a former track star (and a regular on Sesame Street at age 2), has made a bubbly, eminently watchable documentary about a woman she legitimately regards as a role model, and her enthusiasm is as infectious as was Chisholm’s passion in her heyday. Still, Lynch’s worshipful approach also suggests a lack of critical distance when it comes to assessing the significance of Chisholm’s run for president, which even the candidate herself must have known was largely symbolic. For this reason, Chisholm ’72 is stronger as a portrait of the woman than it is as an analysis of her place in black political history. With her triangular thatch of black curls, thick-rimmed glasses and precise diction, Chisholm looked and sounded like the prim but dedicated schoolmarm you remember with gratitude years after your knuckles have stopped smarting from her ruler. She had a queen-size ego, a robust aim for the jugulars of those who got in her way, and a powerful blend of political smarts and integrity that allowed her, on the one hand, to visit her rival George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot, and on the other, to deliver fiery rhetoric that tied the liberation of oppressed minorities to the common good.

Like Jesse Jackson, who is conspicuously absent from the black leaders interviewed for the movie, Chisholm was a progressive populist. On one level there could have been no better time or place to be doing what she was doing, in an era when race and gender topped the political agenda for a new generation of idealists. Yet though the archival footage in Chisholm ’72 offers the heady pleasures of looking back on a time when anything seemed possible, the movie is also a sobering testament to what was not possible. Consciously or not, Lynch raises important questions about the longstanding American habit of quixotic politicking. Was Shirley Chisholm a spoiler, as Ralph Nader was rightly accused of being in the last two elections? Context is all: Unlike Nader, she was blazing a trail for blacks and women in American politics. “I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate,” she says in the movie. “Someday . . . it was time in 1972 to make that someday come.” She ran because she wanted to demonstrate she had the right to, and in part thanks to her chutzpah, that someday has come for the likes of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Barack Obama and maybe even Hillary Clinton, who with any luck will run a campaign in 2008 that will prove anything but symbolic.

CHISHOLM ’72 UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED | Written and directed by SHOLA LYNCH | Produced by PHIL BERTELSEN | Released by Film Movement | PBS, Monday, February 7, 10 p.m., as part of Black History Month.

LA Weekly