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September 2004
Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed: An Interview with Shola Lynch

Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed: An Interview with Shola Lynch

By Wilson Morales

With the 2004 presidential election coming up in less than 2 months from now, it's time to think about the candidate and you want as your leader. For the 3 decades, it has been basically been a two man race, but it you could go back in time through memory of history book, there was a female who step up to the plate and took a swing to be President. Her name was Shirley Chisholm. She lost her campaign but what she did was unprecedented and unforgotten. Directed Shola Lynch was so consumed by her plight that she wanted to tell the story for many reasons, one so that we don't forget and another so we can think about the future. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Shola speaks about her path to do this documentary on a legendary woman.

Click here to view the Chisholm '72 First Look

Where did the inspiration to make this film come from?

Shola Lynch: The inspiration to make this film came about because I was working for a filmmaker, Ken Burns, and I had worked with him for 5 years, which was great, and the experience inspired me to think about the films I would make. I never thought I would be a filmmaker but I found myself being one because of my love of history and I'm good at researching. Her birthday was announced on NPR, and I was like, "Wow! She's still alive." So I became slightly obsessed and did a little research and I remembered that she was the first black woman elected to Congress but I had not remembered that she ran for President. When I found out, I was like, "What a great story and how come I didn't know about this?" I've taken Women's Studies classes and African America history classes, political science, and etc. I wanted to find her and talk to her. It was a little difficult because I knew so little about it and so I became obsessed.

Doing research and finding her is one thing, but to do a film about her campaign for the presidency is another entire issue.

SL: I didn't realized exactly how hard it was going to be to do that and once I set myself on the course, I couldn't stop. It was like I started to gain momentum. So I took it in little steps and I have been an athlete for much my life. I ran track, the 800 and the 1500. I ran in high school, paid for college, and ran after school. It fed the way I understood progress. You take each goal at a time and you work towards the big goal. Did I really know if I could do this? No. Was I sure I was going to try? Yes. I wanted to be an Olympian. Did I know I wanted to be one? No. Did I try to be one? No, but track took me all over the place so I knew whether I got to the end, it would take me somewhere.

Doing a documentary takes commitment as well as funding. How long was the process and what type of support did you receive?

SL: I received many funding from many entities related to PBS, foundations, corporations, National Black Programming consortium, P.O.V and so on. But I started with smaller foundations and I wasn't sure if I could raise the money, but I had a little bit of luck. By coincidence, I was on a plane and met a man who happened to be part of the committee to elect the first black congressman, and the group changed when they discovered Shirley Chisholm, and to make the long story short, he ended up giving me my first grant. It was like $1500 and I was like, "Wow!" Having one grant made it a little easier to get the next grant, which was close to $5000, and then $10,000, and then $20,000 and it went like that.

The centerpiece of all this is of course getting the permission from Ms. Chisholm to do this. What was it like when you met her?

SL: After hearing her birthday announced and doing some research, I tried to find her. I had a really hard time locating her because she wasn't associated with any type of institution and the people that I called didn't know who the heck I was and we were going to give it up. We weren't even sure if she was still alive. After a few months of being on and off with this because I have a full time job, I went out one night with a girlfriend and we went to bar in NY and there was this guy at the bar who was really cute and he leaves the bar and I go up to the bartender and said, "Your friend was really cute" and then ordered my drink. He looks at me and says, "Why didn't you say that when he was in here". So he ducks under the bar to get his friend and brings him back and through the course our conversation, he starts talking about his mom, his sister, and the chairman of the Glass Commission under the Clinton administration and his mom is a local leader politician. He then mentioned that she had just thrown this barbecue for Shirley Chisholm and I'm like, "Oh my goodness, Shirley Chisholm?" and he asked me if I knew who she was because I hadn't mentioned anything about the project. I just thought it was just meant to be.

Strange Luck.

SL: Exactly. So he hooked me up with his mom who gave her address and I wrote directly to her, followed it up with a phone call. She was not an easy woman to convince.

Why so?

SL: I think because she felt that she put her time in and her second husband had died a few years ago. I think she felt that her time had come and gone and there was nothing else to say about it. I think ultimately the way I was able to appeal to her was to appeal to the teacher in her. I told her that her story can't be lost to the next generation. The story is important just for that. I think on the third or fourth phone call I filibustered as to why I wanted to make this film. I told her that the story is about her, but not about her, but about the future generation and she finally said yes.

What were some other obstacles to getting this film completed?

SL: Filmmaking is nothing but obstacles, or as we say, hurdles. You just have to be ready to ride the ups and downs. I wasn't sure I would be able to get the funding in time to get it out in 2004.

Why was it so important to get this film out now?

SL: It was hugely important because this is a story about presidential politics and this is a story about politics and participation. I remembered feeling in 2000 that so many people were being turned off from politics and voting and all of that stuff because they felt there weren't examples of fiery political personalities with great integrity. There was a disconnect between what I, I being every person, can do to participate in politics abd who politicians are and so we can't participate in it. She (Shirley) is a woman in her neighborhood who sees something that's not right and wants to do something about it and she starts with being in the local Democratic club and then she moved up in the club and then she ran for office. She had this natural progression for leadership and she didn't shy away from responsibility. So many people now like to complain about stuff but not necessary do the work to help the world be a better place. She didn't just start running for president; she started with her community to make some changes by volunteering her time.

You know enough about what she did in the past, but what do you know about her now?

SL: That's an interesting question and a tough one to answer because she's a very polite, slightly old fashion, yet progressive woman. She's very West Indian but American born. Her parents are from Barbados and she like to have it all together and she believes in being polite. One of the big challenges was interviewing her and we did it over two days and I remembered after the first day I wanted to cry. I felt like she was resisting me a bit, but by the second day I was able to break through. I figured out two things. I had to remind her why she was doing this again because it wasn't a pleasant journey for her to go back and the other part was that I had to ask broad questions to let her talk so she could bring the stories to me. I let her be herself with the questions I asked. She's now retired from that life and not looking to be the center of attention. She's not looking to be the same fiery woman. She feels that she's paid her dues and done the best she could. She wants to be in the stands to cheer someone else now.

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