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'Chisholm '72' is riveting portrait of a pioneer

Shirley Chisholm was a remarkable woman who boldly ran for president of the United States in 1972 during the tumultuous days of the Vietnam War, the women's movement, and the Black Panther Party.

Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the US Congress, died last month at the age of 80, but her fiery spirit lives on in the riveting PBS documentary ''Chisholm '72 -- Unbought & Unbossed," which airs tonight on WGBH (Channel 2) at 10 as part of Black History Month. The 90-minute film is part of PBS's ''P.O.V." independent film series.

''Chisholm '72" is rich in details about the history-making era when President Richard Nixon was running for his second term, the voting age was changed from 21 to 18, and Walter Cronkite was in his heyday. Reporting on Chisholm's run, Cronkite quipped, ''A new hat -- rather, a bonnet -- was tossed into the presidential race today."

The film goes on, through archival news footage, interviews with observers, and even period music, to evoke Chisholm's groundbreaking campaign to represent the poor, the young, women, people of color, gays, and other marginalized citizens. Although she never expected to win, she ran against the odds ''to demonstrate sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo," Chisholm says in the film.

Directed by newcomer Shola Lynch, ''Chisholm '72" is especially appealing because it includes recent commentary from the outspoken Chisholm herself. Except for her gray hair, her face looks the same on the screen as it did decades ago, including the trademark mole on her chin. Even as a senior citizen, she hadn't mellowed.

''There were 13 people running for the presidency," she recalls in the documentary. ''We were all taking votes from each other. [Maine Senator Edmund] Muskie thought he should have the lead, really. He was the most important thing. Senator Scoop Jackson from Washington, he was scared of me. [Arkansas congressman] Wilbur Mills . . . he was half drunk most of the time. And [Hubert] Humphrey, Humprey was kind of nice. He wasn't too bad."

Archival interviews with Chisholm are also entertaining. In one scene, she describes for two journalists what it was like to walk into the halls of Congress each day and be greeted by skeptical colleagues. One representative whom she doesn't name was particularly aggressive.

''Every day I would come into the chamber and he would say, 'Ms. Chisholm, how are you doing? My! Imagine you making [$42,000] like me. Ms. Chisholm, you're making 42.5. . . . I kept hearing 42.5, 42.5. It was just too much.

''One day, I said, first of all, since you can't stand the idea of me making 42.5 like you, when you see me come into this chamber each day, vanish until I take my seat so you won't have to confront me with this 42.5. Secondly, you must remember I am paving the road for a lot of other people who look like me to make 42.5."

Interviews with authors such as Octavia Butler, former congressmen Walter Fauntroy and Ronald Dellums, and California congresswoman Barbara Lee, who started in politics with Chisholm's campaign, round out the story.

The film begins with comments from director Lynch, who worked with the award-winning documentary maker Ken Burns on PBS's ''Frank Lloyd Wright" and the 10-part ''Jazz" series. Democracy is not a spectator sport, she notes. Today's children -- many of whom are not taught civics in school -- must learn to participate in government. ''It's really easy to complain," she says. But ''what is our responsibility?"

''Chisholm '72" goes on to discuss the New York congresswoman's heritage. Her father was from Guiana and her mother from Barbados. Chisholm spent part of her early childhood living with her maternal grandmother in Barbados before joining her parents in Brooklyn, N.Y.

In 1949, Chisholm married a private investigator from Jamaica. Together, they participated in local politics before Chisholm won a seat in the New York General Assembly and then the US Congress.

''Chisholm '72" is an important film that is especially timely given Chisholm's recent death. As the Senate makes room for Barack Obama, the country must remember that Chisholm and her fighting spirit paved the way.

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at

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