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A historic homecoming
for congresswoman and the actress who plays her in the Netflix biopic ‘Shirley’

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee visited with Christina Jackson on Northeastern’s Oakland campus to remember an historic day in 1972 when Shirley Chisholm gave a speech titled “Women in Politics — Why Not?”

U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and Christina Jackson talking to each other on the Oakland campus.
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee visits with Christina Jackson in the library during a visit to Northeastern’s Oakland campus on May 13, 2024. Photo by Greer Rivera for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif. — U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee points to an old yearbook photo while actress Christina Jackson peers over her shoulder.

“That’s me back there,” Lee explains. 

Jackson smiles and spots an old newspaper clipping next to the yearbook, reading the headline aloud: “From Ghetto to First Negro in Office.” 

She turns to Lee for a response. 

“Isn’t that something?” Lee chuckles.

Both women visited the Oakland campus of Mills College at Northeastern University on Monday to remember a historic day in 1972 when Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, gave a speech titled “Women in Politics — Why Not?”

Jackson plays Lee, a 1973 Mills graduate, in the 2024 Netflix biopic “Shirley,” which chronicles Chisholm’s campaign for president.

Lee invited Jackson to visit the campus where her own political career took root. 

For Lee, who organized Chisholm’s 1972 visit as then-president of the Black Student Union, the question of “why not?” resonated and kickstarted her own historic political career. As one of the only Black women to hold a senior staff position on Capitol Hill, Lee joined Chisholm’s campaign as a delegate for the 1972 Democratic National Convention and, at Chisholm’s urging, registered to vote. 

Lee has since been elected to the California State Assembly, the California State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, authoring 67 bills that were signed into law. 

Monday’s meeting was about remembering where that legacy started — on a Tuesday evening in January over 50 years ago, in the bleachers of the Haas Pavilion gym, with a candidate who had already made history as the first Black congresswoman and had her sights set on the highest office in the land. 

For Lee and Jackson, tracing that legacy started in the Heller Rare Book Room in the campus library.

Viewing the archives

Janice Braun, the library’s director, had prepared a display of memorabilia from the library’s vast archives that sparked many memories. One item was Lee’s Black Student Union newsletter, urging Black students to get involved with the community to enact change.

One of Lee’s suggestions in the newsletter was to team up with The Rainbow Sign, a Black club in Berkeley, to book performers (mentioning activists and writers like Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou). Lee wanted to sell tickets to these events, and raise money to send students to Africa for “J-Term,” a semester abroad that was offered to students at the time. No students had ever visited Africa, and Lee wanted to change that.

Lee raised funds for 16 students to go, and when one more student expressed interest, she had run out of money. She decided to stage a sit-in at the president’s office, remembering it took about two days before she secured the funds for the last student to make the trip. 

“No one had ever done it — go to Africa for J-Term,” said Lee, asking for a copy of the newsletter to take with her to read on the plane ride home. “So we got it.”

Registering to vote

When a young Barbara Lee met Shirley Chisholm, she didn’t see the value in being a registered voter. A scene from “Shirley” recreates this moment, with Jackson portraying Lee as feeling disconnected from the political system, and seeing voting as “bourgeois politics.” 

At the time, Lee was a 25-year-old single mother, raising two small boys on public assistance while she attended Mills, and she worked on making change by staging protests and aligning efforts with the Black Panther party. 

In the movie, actress Regina King — playing Chisholm — says that becoming part of the system, and making change from the inside, is just as important as raising a ruckus from the outside.

“I hear you talking about the people who have the power to make change,” Jackson, as Lee, says in the film. “And I don’t know where to start.”

“If all you’re doing is outside yelling and screaming, that’s all you’re ever gonna be,” says King as Chisholm.

That conversation had a huge impact on Lee, who continues to encourage young Black people, and other marginalized groups, to vote.

“We have to get young people involved and engaged,” Lee said. “Because who knows better than young people — Black people — what it’s like to be marginalized?”

Jackson, an actress from New Jersey who has been performing professionally since 2006 on shows like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Infamous,” agreed that elevating Black voices in politics — and in storytelling — is key to enacting meaningful and lasting change.

“We have this group of people in this generation who knows what information is, who knows what their voices are,” Jackson said. “The movie shows how important voting is on all levels.”

Making the movie

Jackson read the script for “Shirley” and was immediately interested in the role of a young Barbara Lee, embarking on her career in politics alongside her mentor, Shirley Chisholm. She prepared for the role by researching Lee, watching documentaries from the era, and seeing the film’s “lookbooks,” which showed the hairstyles, sets and wardrobes of the period. She remembered showing up to the Chicago set for her first day of filming, feeling prepared — except for one thing.

“Shirley” director John Ridley, who won an Oscar for adapting the screenplay for the film “12 Years a Slave,” asked Jackson if she needed anything else. 

“I said, ‘I need to talk to Barbara,’” Jackson remembered.

On Christmas Eve, Jackson and Lee had a 45-minute phone conversation, filling in the background for Jackson’s performance and sparking a lasting friendship. 

Lee felt strongly that the film needed to be made, and that Chisholm’s legacy had not been given the recognition it deserved. 

“It was very hard for me to get members of Congress currently on the Hill to recognize who Shirley Chisholm was,” Lee said. “It took 15 years to put this film together.”

Jackson agreed that, despite the 2014 commemorative postage stamp honoring Chisholm — which Lee had also championed — Chisholm’s important place in history had not yet been properly recognized. 

“I don’t think enough is being done to preserve the spaces Shirley occupied,” she said. 

Trip to the gym

After the library archival viewing, Lee and Jackson visited Haas Pavilion, where Chisholm gave her 1972 speech. The gym was alive with another activity that day: screaming and yelling young women playing a spirited game of volleyball.

Both women watched the game for a few minutes, and went outside where it was more quiet. As they said their goodbyes, it was noted that they both wore orange — a coincidence, to be sure. But Lee sees a lot more of herself in Jackson than an affinity for the same color.

“When I met Christina, it was like meeting me,” Lee said. 

“I think I look good in orange,” Jackson joked.

“It’s my favorite color,” Lee said.

Jackson and Lee both hope the movie puts Chisholm’s legacy back in the spotlight, and inspires future Black leaders to get involved. 

“A large part of being a Black artist is to be able to contribute to tell Black stories,” Jackson said. “We should know the first Black congresswoman and the first Black woman to run for president. We should know that.”