A regular on Sesame Street in the 1970s, Shola Lynch is now an acclaimed documentary filmmaker. Her first film, Chisholm ’72—Unbought & Unbossed, was an official selection to Sundance and eight other film festivals last year, and it is a nominee for a 2005 Independent Spirit Award. It will air on PBS (as part of its P.O.V. documentary series) on Monday, February 7, at 10 p.m.
Rail editor Theodore Hamm recently sat down with Lynch at a cafe near her office in Harlem.
Rail: Tell us how you became interested in American history.
Lynch: I actually got interested in American history because I ran track. I know that sounds bizarre, but I was really good at track—I held a lot of age group records, etc. In fact, I used to run at the Colgate games, which are held at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. When I was thinking about where I wanted to go to school, I wanted to be an Olympian. I got offers from almost every college you could imagine, but—to the great irritation of my father, a professor at Columbia University—I ended up choosing the University of Texas. As far as I was concerned, Malcolm and Martin had taken care of everything, so I don’t know what anybody was complaining about [laughs]. But when I got to Austin, I realized that the rest of the country doesn’t really think like the tiny enclave that I grew up in, here in Manhattan. So I got interested in history as a way of understanding “what the heck is so different?” about other parts of the country.
Rail: How did those experiences spark your interest in Shirley Chisholm?
Lynch: Well, one of the things I learned from running track, and from pursuing but not reaching the Olympics, is that if you have an interest in something, you have to try it. What I feel is important about Mrs. Chisholm, and why I was attracted to her story, come from that very same philosophical underpinning. She was a woman of action, and she was not afraid of the process or the fight. She wasn’t afraid of what some people call “losing” because she didn’t even see things in that way. Although that’s not to say that she wasn’t unrealistic at times.
Rail: Your film focuses on her ’72 run, rather than her whole career. There’s only a brief biographical section, and quick reference to her becoming the first African American woman in Congress, representing Bed-Stuy. Is this because you think the ’72 campaign in some way captured who she was?
Lynch: I chose the story about her run for president because it showed her political philosophy, precisely because she does not win the nomination; and throughout the campaign, she also showed her spirit. But I also chose it precisely because it was a national campaign, so I knew there was going to be more footage of it. The other thing is that she actually won that Congressional race (in ’68), so it would have been a harder story to tell. It wouldn’t have raised the same questions as her candidacy for president. When somebody wins, it’s easy just to package it as “ordained by God” in some ways. The impulse would have been to use narration, but I wanted to recreate the action of the story.
Rail: Were you excited by the fact that no one had told the story before?
Lynch: Yes, most people had forgotten about it or didn’t even know about it. In fact, I didn’t even really know about it, and I consider myself a reasonably educated individual. I have a master’s in American history (from U.C. Riverside), but what I realize in looking back at some of my texts is that, while I had seen a few sentences about the Chisholm campaign, I had been completely dismissive of it. I didn’t understand the important questions that her candidacy raised. But then I started thinking, “Wow, why would she do that when she’s not going to win?” And again, you’re talking to an athlete, which means I’m like, “Hmm, you’re not going to win, then whatever.” That perspective was backed up by the way history has dealt with her. She’s mentioned only in passing—there’s no political or historical analysis of her campaign, or even of her run for Congress. The only book that exists is a children’s book. What does that say?
Rail: That somebody ought to be out there writing a biography.
Lynch: Yeah, but now she’s gone, so you can’t even talk to her. It excited me in making the documentary that she was here to tell her story. I didn’t want it to be just her own version of her story, because I think that’s bad history. I wanted it to be the story of that run in the ’72 context, which incorporates many other perspectives.
Rail: I found the film valuable not only for telling us about Chisholm, but also because it covered a time in the not-too-distant past when political campaigns were not centered entirely around “who can win?” In ’72, conventions still meant something, and Chisholm’s whole goal was to go to Miami and wield some power.
Lynch: She wanted to go to the convention with delegates, but not just to wield power in some personal sense. That race was going to be so close, and the delegates she had could possibly make the difference between Humphrey or McGovern being the nominee. That meant she had political currency. So she wasn’t going with her hat—or as Walter Cronkite said, her “bonnet”—in her hand and saying, “You should support women’s rights issues,” or “Civil rights is a good thing” and so on. No, she was saying, “You want my votes, here’s what you have to do.” And that’s a different position.
Rail: So, that’s something that other politicians can learn from? I’m thinking of Howard Dean, who had the support of both the antiwar movement and the Congressional Black Caucus, and who surely would have had influence at the convention had he stayed in the race.
Lynch: Yes. For her, it was important to go all the way. Of course, the political circumstances are a little different now. One, it didn’t cost as much. Two, the convention did mean something, as you said. And three, it was perceived to be such a close race that she could actually pull off her goal. In some ways, she was gambling, but she was willing to take that risk, to put herself out there. That’s because in her mind, she can’t lose. Symbolically, she gets to represent progressive issues without worrying whether people are going to support her or not, because most of them are not going to support her anyway. And she also has the potential to follow through on her political strategy—which I found out through the making of this film, because it was not obvious to me at the outset that she had any strategy.
Rail: She also had the ability to generate some media attention as well, being the first black woman to run for president.
Lynch: Right, but what she didn’t anticipate was how pigeonholed she would be—
Rail: Or, as Jules Witcover says in your film, that she would be considered a “twofer,” meaning both black and a woman.
Lynch: [Laughs.] I love that. Thank you, Jules Witcover!
Rail: Tell us about your interactions with Chisholm.
Lynch: In order to get funding, I needed to put together a trailer, because I had never made my own documentary before. I had worked on Ken Burns’s series about jazz, and one of the assistant editors knew how to use a camera, and one of the other editors knew how to do sound, so I hired them to take a trip with me to Florida to see Mrs. Chisholm. But in order to interview her, I had to be persistent. I had written her a letter, then called her, at which point she said, “Oh, I’m not sure about an interview.” To that I said, “O.K., then I’ll write you another letter.” So I wrote her another letter, sent her some chocolates, then called again. It took a few more phone calls to convince her.
Rail: Do you think she was testing you, or just reluctant to talk about the past?
Lynch: I think that for one, she wasn’t interested in wasting her time. I don’t mean that in a dismissive way. I think that she was just in the moment, “doer”-oriented. The idea of sitting around waxing eloquent about the glory days was just not for her, so I really had to work hard to talk her into it. And second, she was worried about how much time it would take—as in “I don’t want you in my life for the next four years.” She didn’t say it like that, but this was the sense that I got. She was retired, and had put in her time. Finally, after the third or fourth phone call, she started to seem receptive. At that point, I launched into a whole discussion about how this wasn’t for her, this was for future generations, and so on. And I told her that if “you don’t tell your story, either other people will do it for you, or more likely, it will be lost.” And that tapped into the teacher in her. She had been a school teacher who volunteered for her local Democratic club, and then because of her desire to participate, she evolved into a politician. So she was able to bring out the extraordinary within herself, and she wanted the same for other people.
Rail: Near the end of your film, Chisholm is sitting in her hotel room in Miami at the convention, and when she finally decides to let her delegates go, she says, “Don’t let the spirit die.” Is that what you’re saying with the film?
Lynch: That’s exactly it. Argue with her, don’t agree with her. I love what Octavia Butler says, “Power is just a tool.” If you don’t have it, somebody else will. You can’t complain if you’re giving up your power, your civic duty, and letting other people make decisions for you.