Great Britain

Miss Virginia review – shallow biopic fails to do its subject justice

Uzo Aduba has just picked up a well-deserved Emmy for playing the pioneering African American congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in Mrs America. Now she is on the other side of Washington DC, as the struggling single parent turned education reform activist Virginia Walden.

In early scenes, Virginia drags her weary frame through school metal detectors to urgent parent-teacher conferences about her 15-year-old son. Then it’s on to meetings with the bank to plead for loans to pay for private school and her second job cleaning toilets at a congresswoman’s office. On the horizon, the Capitol dome gleams, contrasting with crumbling, graffitied buildings of Walden’s neighbourhood, a simplistic shorthand for DC’s notorious inequalities. The cliched choreography of a school-bully fight scene – they round on the class nerd and trample his glasses – is also typical of this film’s surface-skimming depiction of social problems.

Eventually Virginia meets Congressman Clifford Williams (a wild-haired Matthew Modine), who sells her on a system of private school tuition vouchers, which he says has worked elsewhere. This, they insist, is nothing to do with “politics” and “all about the kids”. But they are ignoring the role that poverty and de facto segregation play in a failing education system, while proposing private schools for a lucky few as a solution. Surely that is political?

Those who object swell the ranks of film’s villains. They are careerists such as Lorraine Townsend (played by Aunjanue Ellis and supposedly based on the real-life Democrat politician Eleanor Holmes Norton), or burned-out schoolteachers, or drug dealers motivated only by pantomime malevolence (The Wire this is not). Sure, biopics of living subjects require a careful balance, but if Miss Virginia couldn’t find a way to include some analysis alongside all its admiration, why bother?

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