Q&A with Shola Lynch
This Q&A with director Shola Lynch, director of the powerful documentary, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, was conducted back in March of this year.
Tail Slate: Tell me a little bit about the response you received when you screened your film here at South by South Web Media Festival (SXSW) on [March 19].
Shola Lynch: I was a little worried, but we had a great crowd, and we got a standing ovation. That was awesome and totally unanticipated.
TS: It premiered at Sundance before, right? Did you get a similar response there?
SL: It had a great response, people stayed by a Q&A, but a standing ovation. That doesn’t happen all the time. It wasn’t a concert. It wasn’t mandatory. there’s no encore in film. I’m sure if Shirley Chisholm was there, there would be an encore every time, but I’m just the filmmaker. It’s great for her, though.
TS: That’s great. Tell me a little bit about what inspired you to make a documentary about Shirley Chisholm.
SL: Well, you know, I didn’t really remember that she’d run for president. I knew that she was the first black woman elected to Congress, and I don’t even really remember 1972. I was really young. It hadn’t really been pointed out to me, and I’m very interested in history. I’m really interested in African American history and women’s history, but she’s kind of left out of that landscape. She’s mentioned in passing though. I was familiar with her name, but no body has really done an in-depth study of her political work. Or even a biography, for that matter.
TS: She wrote –
SL: Her own. She wrote “Unbought and Unbossed” about her run for Congress. She had a really difficult run. That actually is a really fascinating story. And she wrote “The Good Fight”, which is about her run for President.
TS: But those were both written back in the 70s, right?
SL: Exactly. The year after the race. So in ’69, “Unbought and Unbossed”, and “The Good Fight” in ’73. It was published in 1973. And in many ways, that Presidential campaign took so much out of her. Emotionally, financially.
TS: And she was attacked several times, right?
SL: Yeah, she was attacked several times. I mean, it was scary, and it was definitely supposed to be a warning to her that she was transgressing her place and that she was really not fit for being there. And some of it was out and out intimidation of her.
TS: Do you think that that was the case because she was a woman of color, or was it due to either her race or gender specifically?
SL: You know, you can’t separate the two. Would it have happened if it was just a man? Probably. But in some ways it was more offensive to think that you had both a minority race and gender classification or guidelines or you know, she shouldn’t have been there.
TS: I don’t remember – when did her political career end?
SL: She retired in ’83 from Congress. She was in Congress from ’68 to ’83, and she retired because of the Reagan era, and she said it was very difficult to work across the aisle and have bipartisan legislation. She was always very issue-oriented and relied on that work across the aisle. And with whoever. She didn’t tow the party line. Nobody really owned her, which is great and really frustrating, you know [Laughs].
TS: Were there certain political pet projects that she had? I mean, I know she wanted to make democracy more representative, but were there certain pieces of legislation that she worked on to do that?
SL: Well, I talked to her senior legislative aide during that period. She’s actually in the movie – Shirley Gaines. She was interested in education. And there were a couple of bills that she had passed on health care and things that had to do with issues related to the people in her community, they were largely a group of people not making a lot of money, just trying to get by in Brooklyn. And she was very aware of the need for after-school programs and for passing legislation related to that in the New York state legislature and also in the U.S. Congress.
She spoke out against the Vietnam war on the floor of Congress when nobody else did. She worked for women’s rights and the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment], [she] and Bella Abzug, it was a joint effort.
In a way, it’s very fascinating to me because she comes out of a Christian tradition. We always think of Christian tradition as very fundamentalist and very right wing. Her Christian tradition was humanistic, and because of that, she defended broad kinds of legislation and was for human rights and there wasn’t really such thing as gay rights, but gay rights folks loved her. I mean, she wasn’t advocating a gay rights lifestyle, but she was advocating human beings’ rights, and whatever fell under that broad umbrella was really important to her.
It’s fascinating to me because I’ve grown up thinking the Christian tradition can mean only one thing. So it’s fascinating to take a look at her.
TS: Yeah, certainly. Tell me a little bit about the effect you think Shirley Chisholm had on her constituents and her colleagues.
SL: Everybody that we talked who had worked with her in Congress or on her campaign was so incredibly impacted by her energy, her commitment, her follow-through, and were completely inspired in their own lives in that way. And to a T, every person has been involved in either local politics or their own work community and shaping rules, trying to change things. It’s almost like they have a real sense of citizenship and duty from seeing her in action as young kids, well, not kids, college-age. And they are always impressed with their forthrightness. We think of politicians as trying to figure out how to spin things, but she just had her mind set on something. She was the same person, who believed in the same legislation and said the same thing whether she was in front of a white Southern audience or a black Baptist audience or an urban audience anywhere in the country.
And it’s this funny friendship that gets struck up between her and [George] Wallace for that very reason. Because Wallace, you know, was on the complete other end of the Democratic and political spectrum in so many ways. But he didn’t mend his words either, so in a funny way, he actually said on television that he had a lot of respect for Shirley Chisholm. He said, “If you’re not going to vote for me, vote for Shirley Chisholm. She’s at least telling you how she feels. There’s integrity in that.” [Laughs]
TS: That’s great.
TS: When I spoke with Larry [Meistrich, CEO of Film Movement, distributor of Chisholm ‘72], one of the things he mentioned when we discussed your film was that they’re marketing it as a film about electability rather than a story about an African American woman. Is that how you want to see your film marketed as well?
SL: Yeah, you know, I think too often you can get pigeonholed by your race and gender [Laughs]. And while it’s interesting and it’s good and it’s important, it is. And nobody wants to give it that short shrift.
The reason the movie is important to me is not because of her race and gender, but it’s because of her political action and the kind of politician she was. Given that time period, it’s amazing, including the race and gender stuff. And I really appreciate that about Larry’s approach to the material in the film because it is a political story. And that’s the more interesting story. I mean, it’s like “yeah, great, she’s black and she’s a woman. Yeah, great.” That story’s done in thirty seconds. Cheers! [Laughs] And I think too often people forget that any story, if it’s told well, has broad appeal because it strikes a human chord.
TS: And that was her big thing. She wanted to hold democracy accountable and guarantee equality for all people.
SL: Yeah, she never denied who she was in the process.
TS: One of Shirley’s gripes with the political system was that it wasn’t equally accessible to everyone. Would you say this still seems to be the case now? Obviously, it still seems to be.
SL: Yeah. It’s even worse now because it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. More people now than they did in the ‘50s obviously and even in ’72 feel like they cannot affect any kind of change. Whereas, back then, it was kind of the tail end of that feeling, like we can make the system moral. If you think about the civil rights movement, which was started in part by adults, a lot of the change came from protesting in the streets by young people. And the civil rights laws passed, and the Voting Rights Act passed. The ERA almost passed, or it passed in Congress, but then it didn’t get ratified by the states. [Laughs] Then Vietnam was a huge issue.
And the voting age had changed from 21 to 18, and ’72 was the first election where all of these people were allowed to vote. That’s a huge part of the story in that it’s a historical moment that allowed her to run. You’re talking about 10 million new voters that were crazy enough to be attracted – many of them – to a candidate like her.
TS: Ann [Hinshaw, Shola’s publicist] mentioned that you’ve also been very politically active yourself, but she didn’t say what that was. She just said I had to ask you about your activism. So tell me a little bit about some of the projects you’ve worked on.
SL: [Laughs] Well, I don’t know, how do I put this. I am politically involved. I am definitely politically involved. I believe in voting. I believe in participation, and I mean participation in a big sense, like I’ll go out and vote. And I mean participation in a smaller sense. Any organization or community or work environment that I belong to, I will be an active member of that community, and that includes making it a better community, which in some ways is above and beyond the call of duty. It’s not something I get paid to do. I don’t know where I get that from, but it is instilled in me, and it comes out in various ways.
I was an athlete here at the University of Texas; I ran track for the Lady Longhorns. There was actually an incident that happened; it was Greek Week, I think. The parades, blah, blah, blah. And there was one – I think it was the Fiji House – kept opening and closing a trunk. Inside, they had a noose, and “Die nigger,” and they just had some horrible racial slurs in there. And somebody from The Daily Texan saw it and happened to have a camera and took a photograph, and so there was a big debate on campus about this. And the president was asked – he had to react. So he called all of these people into his chamber, and said, “I want to read this speech to you, who are part of this community of the University. A lot of them were athletes, a lot of them were football players, these were all guy athletes. You know, professors. And what he did is he came out late, and he said, “Oh, you know, we don’t have time for this discussion, let’s just go to the podium. Come with me.” So he was basically making it seem as though he had this community of people behind him, and he gave the most kind of “boys will be boys, you know, it’s a shame, but boys will be boys” speech. And those of us that were in the audience that were on the mall and the athletes were up there were mortified, and they were embarrassed. They were angry, and they felt used. So one of the things that always comes up from the athletes is “You know, we’re here to do our job [representing the school], so if you need anything …” So a swimmer and I along with a couple of other organizations organized a rally, and we got about 200 athletes—I mean, some of the biggest guys and some of the ladies. [Laughs] And we marched from the stadium all the way to the mall and gave these passionate speeches. It was great, and that propelled me to be in student government, which at UT is really hard. But because of that, a lot of the guys decided to go out and vote – and vote for me. That was the only way I could win because I wasn’t a part of a sorority or anything. So athletes were my community. I remember this one guy came up and said, “You know, I never would’ve voted, but I like you, and you want to win, so I’m gonna vote for you.” He was this big Texan with an accent. So things like that.
TS: One of the things you mentioned earlier is the increase in political apathy and the feeling of powerlessness. Do you think that that will change this coming year, especially after a lot of people in Florida weren’t allowed or encountered physical barriers that prevented from getting to the polls in 2000?
SL: Yeah, I hope so. And that’s part of the reason I felt that it was important to finish a film like this before a presidential election. Not only is it about a woman who runs for President, but the way in which she does it and the spirit in which she does it is really inspiring. I think there are a lot of people who feel that [change has to happen] and who are trying to work through whatever organizations they belong to, or internet communities, which is a big thing now.
The other problem with politics is the huge amount of money that’s involved in running a presidential campaign. I mean, she ran her presidential campaign with very little money, which in a lot of ways is bad. She was very frustrated by that, you know. And campaign finance was actually a huge issue back then. Thirty years ago. By comparison, they were probably spending chump change, even if you do the monetary conversions.
TS: Carol Mosley Braun ran for President, but she’s no longer running. Do you think the same barriers exist to a woman of color getting elected to the White House for women like Carol Mosley Braun as they did for Shirley Chisholm, or do you think those barriers have changed in some respects?
SL: Well, I think they have changed to a degree in that because there are more women and women of color involved in all aspects of political life – not to say there are huge amounts -, but it’s not as shocking. Think about Congress. 400-some-odd Congressmen. Think about what a group picture would have looked like for Shirley Chisholm. I mean, the people she had to work with every day. She was the first, so it was really uncomfortable. I mean, she told all kinds of stories—we couldn’t put all of them in the film—about ways in which people really felt uncomfortable around her. And in some ways, it was isolating. I mean, she built her own community through her office. It was really draining in a lot of ways.
Now there are more women in Congress, and it’s not as shocking. But there are still huge barriers because of the idea of leadership that we have – I mean, there are even barriers for some men. Everyone can’t style himself as Indiana Jones, and so if you’re a guy who doesn’t exude that kind of masculinity, you’re going to have a lot of trouble. So what does it mean if you literally you don’t have the cahonees? I mean, what is that? [Laughs]
TS: In the film world, women of color lack a visible presence as well. There aren’t that many films about women of color. Did you find that that make it difficult for you? I guess most of the funding for your film came from organizations with a vested interest in promoting Chisholm’s message. But did you find that you had trouble initially getting that story out and garnering support for your project?
SL: Well, I found that I had trouble fundraising because people really wondered. I had to craft my proposals knowing that people were going to craft the relevance of it.
TS: That’s so ridiculous.
SL: It is, and it isn’t. Yes, it is. I didn’t want it to be a biography for that reason. Not that I think a biography is a bad way to go, but she is really a woman of action. This is a story about her run for President. So it’s easier to stay away from just general celebration and uplift, which happens a lot. And I think that does a disservice because people who participate in making history don’t think of themselves as making history. There are all of these moral dilemmas and choices that they’re responsible for. And they have to think about what those choices are and act on them. And that’s the same kind of thing we all do every day whether we choose to ignore the choice or not, which is easier in a lot of ways. Does that make any sense?
TS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
SL: So I wanted it to be about that process. And the other thing about it is that because I am a black woman, I knew I could raise money for a film about a black woman. And that because she was not historically contested territory – in fact, the territory didn’t exist – people were like, “Oh, how nice.” And there was that assumption that this would be a nice documentary as opposed to a good political story. I mean, I knew I couldn’t make a story about the ’72 Presidential election … Now I hope that this gets easier and that I don’t have to work as hard to find funding. There are so many great documentaries I’d love to make.
TS: So do you have any future plans? Are there any projects that you’re currently working on?
SL: Yeah, I have a bunch of ideas, but you know, I really enjoyed doing a film about somebody who is still alive because they can participate in telling the story.
TS: I agree. I’m sure it was really great to work with Shirley. Is she in her 80s now?
SL: She’s 79. She’ll turn 80 soon.
TS: She’s still active?
TS: In talking to her, did you get a sense of what she thinks are the problems with the political system today and what she thinks the current barriers are to representation and equality?
SL: Well, we tried to focus on ’72, but her main complaint was that there was no working across the aisle any more. And when you strictly go along party lines, you’re not really going to get anything done.
TS: Right. And that’s still true today.
SL: Yeah, actually, she’s really frustrated by that.
TS: Are there any politicians or activists that you think have really embraced Chisholm’s message? Can you think of anyone who might be the next Shirley Chisholm?
SL: That’s a hard question, by the way, because I’m not aware of everyone doing her work. But Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, California, actually as a young college student helped run the Chisholm presidential campaign and was so inspired by Shirley Chisholm and Ron Delam and by community activism in the Bay Area that she became a politician. She became involved in local politics, and then decided to run for Congress. And she stood up, she was the lone voice on the floor against giving unilateral power to our President after 9/11. You know, wow!
TS: That’s great.
SL: It is, and it’s inspiring! And she also has put a bill on the floor a couple of years ago to recognize Shirley Chisholm a couple years back. I mean, it’s not legislation. It’s a public record. I think these examples are important for women, for women of color. These women are righteous in a lot of ways. You don’t always agree with them, and that’s part of the fun, too. But they’re doing what they think is best, and there’s real appeal in that.
TS: Oh, absolutely. One of the biggest criticisms of both the mainstream feminist movement and the racial equality movement, if you’d call it that, is the failure of these movements to recognize various other aspects of identity. Do you find that this is still a problem, particularly for women of color? And do you think there is a way for women of color to successfully work with mainstream feminist movements and racial equality movements?
SL: Yeah, you know, the thing is, it has always been an issue, and it will probably always be an issue. And it’s a matter of how open the dialogue is in many respects, and Shirley Chisholm said this, too. The idea was that she could bring a coalition of people together, and then the reality was that coalition building was really hard. Because women’s groups didn’t necessarily want to deal with black issues, and black folks didn’t really want to deal with women’s issues, and it was difficult. It was difficult. And so black women were feeling kind of left out. And Paula Giddings, who wrote “When and Where I Enter”, which is a history of this subject. The subtitle, I think, is The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. It’s a great book. I don’t think anybody’s written anything since then that’s been influential. It’s a really fun to read survey about how black women have been the fabric of American history. And she doesn’t do it with uplift and celebration, but in showing their work and showing how they’ve been able to navigate race and gender in the eighteenth century, in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century. In fact, it’s the only place where I found more than passing mention of Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for President.
SL: Granted, it’s just two-and-a-half pages. It’s just a survey, you know. She points out that in the seventies, you see black women finding their own voice, and you see that happening in literature and in politics. For instance, “Color Girls”, by Shengei, I think, Maya Angelou, and then also Shirley Chisholm in politics. It’s like, okay, we have identity other than just our gender or just our race. And that’s the fascinating part. People will fixate on only one aspect of someone’s experience. It’s limiting because no one walks through the world just as their race or just as their gender. There are all kinds of ways in which you identify. I identify – I used to identify – as an athlete and as a scholar and all of the things that make up our personalities.
TS: Documentaries, some say, have a better chance of raising consciousness and sparking activism –
SL: I don’t necessarily believe that at all. I mean, good storytelling is good storytelling, and I think documentaries have been given a bad rap because often they will be good subjects, but they will not necessarily be good stories. We can think of documentaries with good stories, and we can make documentaries with good stories. But then you can also see where the drama is, and good stories also make good movies. The best example recently is Lumumba by Raul Peck. And he made a documentary about Patrice Lumumba, and then he made a narrative. And the narrative was just unbelievably moving. I mean, Oliver Stone has made a career on it! [Laughs]
TS: All of that being said, what is it that you would ideally like to see your audience take from Chisholm ’72?
SL: Oh, gosh, that’s a really hard question! A little bit of hope, a little bit of optimism that could be translated into their own lives and their own communities. Yeah, if you think about it, you know, “democracy, citizenship, and participation.” [Laughs] And what it means applied to us as individuals. But it’s not an abstract idea – well, it is an abstract idea, but it also translates into everyday life.
TS: What would you hope other filmmakers might take from your story and from your work?
SL: Yeah, I’m not as presumptuous. [Laughs] Well, I will say that what we tried to do was tell a really good story and were aware of that and didn’t want to just rely on the fact that we had a fascinating subject. I mean, you see it happening for a lot of the documentaries now. You have to tell a story. It’s not just information strung together.
TS: You have to connect with the audience.
SL: Exactly. You have to make it emotionally compelling. And how do you do that to a character? There are great characters out there that are participating in Hollywood and in documentaries. And then any project can be fascinating. I mean, who knew Dogtown and Z-Boys could be such a great movie? Well, why is that a great movie – are you familiar with it?
TS: I’m not.
SL: It’s about skateboarders. That movie is fantastic because the characters are so compelling. I don’t give a flying cahoots about skateboarders, but those guys are so much fun to watch. The story was really well done, so then all of the sudden, skateboarding becomes a cool thing. [Laughs]
TS: Is there anything you hope political aspirants or people in politics would take from your story about Shirley and her career?
SL: Well, in a lot of ways, they’re the ones who can make the fastest, most effective changes right now. You know, politicians as a breed do not have to be bad people. You don’t have to agree with them, but if politicians actually behave in a way that they believe is actually good and right rather than just trying to win a game, then I think we make our world a better place. There are a lot of people on both sides, throughout the political spectrum that feel that way. I mean, there are a lot of people who just care about winning and making sure you have a job. It’s about money and corporate interests and lobbyists. Oh my gosh. I don’t know quite how to put this. Politics shouldn’t be just about winning. It should be about doing good, but you want to win also. So I’m not quite sure.
TS: One last question. Has Shirley seen the film? What does she think about it?
SL: She has not seen the film.
TS: Oh, really?
SL: She has a very interesting relationship to the film. She almost didn’t let me do it. I had to talk her into it. So I talked her into it, and we went down and did one interview with her so we’d have a trailer to show people. She humored us basically because when we showed up, I said, “we’re going to use this [trailer] to fundraise, so I’ll be back. It might take a year. It might take two.” She never really expected me to come back, which is why she humored us. She’s good at that actually, but she’s also a woman of her word. So when I did come back, she had to do it.
And so when we told her we got into Sundance [Film Festival], she said, “Oh, that’s nice.” But I had to explain to her what that meant because she had no conception of what Sundance was. She was like, “Oh, have fun, dear!” And I wanted to show her the film before we went to Sundance, but she said, “This isn’t a good time.” She had just moved. She had just built a house, and she wanted to move all of her books out of storage. She wanted to be surrounded by her books. And so, finally, I’m going down to show it to her next week actually.
TS: Why didn’t she want you to make the film? Did she just think it wouldn’t be interesting to other people?
SL: In some ways, she didn’t feel it was very relevant. I had to remind her. She said, “That was thirty years ago; I’m not sure if I want to go back to that.” She had real resistance to doing that. But I was able ultimately to convince her because I said, “It’s not really about you. It’s about future generations and making sure that they have great examples, great stories about people who tried to do good things.” Basically, I appealed to the schoolteacher in her.
TS: Oh, that’s right. She was a teacher before she ran for Congress.
SL: Yeah, she was a schoolteacher for a very long time. She was in her late forties when she ran for Congress. She had lived a whole life. That’s the other thing. We think that once we hit thirty, life is over. But [former Texas governor] Ann Richards did the same thing. There are all of these women who do not find themselves or their stride until they’re old enough to say, “I don’t care what you think,” and stop trying to please people.