Regina King always chooses daring stories. One chose her.


On some mornings, Regina King opens her eyes to a set of questions: Can I do this? Why am I doing this? Am I taking care of myself?

The answers come as a choice: Stay in or go out there. Onto the red carpet. Into the world. But with a movie to promote (Netflix’s “Shirley”) and more projects on her slate, King knows full well the decision she has to make. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“It’s a lot to wrap your mind and your emotions around,” said the actress, director and producer, who worked for more than a decade to bring the story of the glass-shattering politician Shirley Chisholm to the screen, even after her own personal tragedy two years ago. “There are times when I find myself kind of falling into autopilot, but I think that space is self-preservation. My body and my mind are like, ‘Okay girl, check out a little bit.’ And luckily I’ve been doing this for so long that that muscle is still there and I’m able to activate it involuntarily.”

What King has been doing for so long is entertaining us. First as the quintessential teen Brenda on the 1980s sitcom “227,” then as a quintessential around-the-way girl in John Singleton’s classic ’90s triptych: “Boyz n the Hood,” “Poetic Justice” and “Higher Learning.”

For years after, King was known as a supporting actress (in “Jerry Maguire,” in “Ray”) with big main-character energy. But she couldn’t be pigeonholed. She voiced two smart-mouthed Black boys on Aaron McGruder’s animated satire “The Boondocks.” In 2019, she earned an Oscar for her role as a mother on a mission in “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The next year, she directed her first film, “One Night in Miami.” To cap off 2020, she won an Emmy for her starring role as Sister Night in HBO’s dystopian superhero series “Watchmen.” Choosing right is King’s calling card.

But this year it’s different out there. She’s different. Since the death of King’s son, the musician and DJ Ian Alexander Jr., in 2022, King has stayed in. Filming for “Shirley” had begun just weeks before his passing. Production eventually wrapped after a hiatus. Then she went on one herself. Now, two years later, King has gradually reentered Hollywood’s whirlpool while making sure to not get sucked under. When she appeared during the 2024 awards season, it was both strategic and sentimental: She was there for filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Oscar winner Angela Bassett and Oscar nominee Danielle Brooks.

“One, I show up for art,” King said. “Two, I show up for art that moves me. Three, I show up for my friends, because they show up for me. Four, because I was just starting to come back into it, they all felt like spaces that I could control.”

When I sat down with King this month to chat before a screening of “Shirley” at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, her old press-junket muscles were just warming up. She’d presented at the Oscars just a few days earlier. That same week, she’d be off to New York for an exclusive sit-down with “Good Morning America” anchor Robin Roberts, one of her first talking about Ian. It’s been an effort.

“I’m not going to lie,” King said, explaining how hard the promo push can be. She often salts the road for her thoughts with phrases like “to be quite honest” and “in all honesty” or “I’m a firm believer in.” Going with your gut is a career choice for King, whose divergent roles fall into an almost divine order.

The same goes for “Shirley,” a film King spent 15 years trying to get made, about the first Black congresswoman’s Hail Mary run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. It’s a public-private story that almost eerily mirrors where King is at in this moment.

“In telling her story, it was [important] to show how awesome and unique of a politician she was, a strategist, but to show the humanity,” King said. “To show that she’s a woman, that she has these emotions and all of the things that come along with just being a spiritual being having a human experience.”

Those were the bullet points King and her sister, Reina, who produced the film together under their Royal Ties banner, gave Oscar winner John Ridley when they tapped him as writer and director. Ridley, who knew King from her time on his drama “American Crime,” asked the sisters what type of story they wanted to tell. Was it a cradle-to-grave piece? A political drama? A triumphant immigrant story? They wanted a human story.

One with a real woman at its center. “I think roles choose the actor,” King said. “We may think we’re choosing the role, but I think it’s kind of predestined, you know?”

The first time King heard the name Shirley Chisholm was around the fourth grade at Castle Heights Elementary School near Culver City, Calif., where the actress was bussed from her home some six miles away in the affluent Black neighborhood of Windsor Hills. Probably in February. “If you’re lucky, Shirley Chisholm was part of the Black History Month curriculum,” she said. Later, she’d learn a bit more about the groundbreaking congresswoman from her mom, a teacher. But not the whole story.

“If I’m being completely honest, it wasn’t until my sister and I started doing the research to try to determine what part of her story to tell when it really started sinking in,” King said. Chisholm was not only the first Black woman in Congress. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the only woman in the inaugural group. She introduced 50 pieces of legislation in the House of Representatives, including successful expansions of the food stamp program and increases to minimum wage. She served another decade in Congress after her historic primary campaign to run for president.

Historian Zinga A. Fraser, a consultant on “Shirley,” said the film provides a framework for Chisholm’s empathy: “Black political women and Chisholm explicitly have never been framed with being soft and compassionate.”

“You can be fierce and bold and radical and at times angry, but also soft-spoken and quiet and thoughtful and strategic,” Fraser said. “The film allows audiences to get a 360-degree view of a Black woman in the 1970s operating in a harsh world.”

Regina and Reina glommed onto the idea of making a Chisholm biopic — the first, despite the representative’s many accomplishments — in the late aughts. Reina suggested that, while shooting “American Crime,” King feel out Ridley. King floated the idea over lunch on set. “And he was like, ‘Are you serious? Me?’” she recalled. But before they could make it Hollywood official, Viola Davis announced in 2018 that she was working on a Chisholm biopic with Amazon Studios. King decided to bow out.

“She’s just genius. So I felt like, ‘Okay, if she does it first, I know it’ll be in good hands,’” King said. “But I was still licking my paws.” But then Davis’s Chisholm project didn’t move forward. King pounced. “We didn’t look back at that point. I feel like Shirley was calling us.”

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King’s portrayal of Chisholm is tight and fiery. The congresswoman is compact with passion, packing righteous indignation in perfectly coifed hair and a matching skirt suit. She is laser-focused but loving. Demanding but never loud. There’s little of her private life in the film, which zeroes in on her 1972 presidential bid. Yet the relationship between Chisholm and her sister Muriel is intimately rendered.

Other actresses auditioned for that part, but Ridley couldn’t land on who to play Chisholm’s younger sister and reluctant supporter. When the director asked Reina, who hadn’t acted since she was a child, her first reaction was no. Then she called Regina for her take.

“Reina is my anchor. Reina is our company’s anchor,” King said. “And so selfishly, I was like, ‘You going to be able to take your producer hat off and put your wig on?’” So her younger sister decided to do it. “And Reina was freaking good, man. She killed it,” said King.

The sisters agreed that one scene was particularly tough. Shirley is asking Muriel for the family’s public support for her presidential run. A reporter might call and need quotes. But over lunch at a Caribbean restaurant, Muriel is clear she won’t be in her sister’s corner. She is embarrassed by her older sister’s ambition. Shirley is left sitting there, alone with a steely gaze, hurt but not hobbled. She’ll keep going, of course. She’s just going it alone.

“That was the most difficult scene,” Reina said. They were experiencing emotions that had nothing to do with the script. There was the fact that, after about 40 years, they were acting together on-screen and not in their living room. That their movie would finally see the light of day. That Ian, to whom “Shirley” is dedicated, wasn’t there.

King counts doing this work as a gift and doing it with her sister as an even greater one. After “Shirley” is released, the director and producer will move on to two very different projects for Netflix: producing and directing “Forever,” a Judy Blume adaptation created by Mara Brock Akil, about two Black teens falling in love, and “A Man in Full,” starring Jeff Daniels, based on the Tom Wolfe novel. Her choices are never expected and never random.

“Sometimes you need to strategize,” Reina said of her sister’s longevity. “Regina made very wise choices, and sometimes those choices aren’t easy, but they’ve made her journey have a lot more staying power.”

Years ago, King said she decided to pick only projects that moved her. “The performances and whatever I’ve directed come from a place of passion and excitement and real interest. I’m not doing it for the check. The check is good, but that’s not my first reason for doing something.”

This was particularly true for the 2021 film “The Harder They Fall,” an all-Black western in which King plays the ruthless outlaw Treacherous Trudy. She wasn’t at all familiar with the film’s director, Jeymes Samuel, before their initial Zoom. But Samuel’s excitement sold her. “Either we’ll fail together and have a really great time doing something interesting and unique, which is almost impossible to do now, or it’s going to be something amazing,” King recalled thinking.

During filming, Samuel, perhaps still not believing his luck in casting her, asked King what she was thinking. She was fresh from her “Beale Street” Oscar and didn’t know him from Adam. What made you say yes?

King was succinct. “I said: ‘Well, the Oscar doesn’t choose for me. I choose for me.’”


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