Michael Cherrie: when destiny beckons | Snapshot

This March, Netflix premieres a film on the trailblazing Shirley Chisholm (who was of Barbadian and Guyanese heritage). Playing Chisholm’s Jamaican husband is Trinidad & Tobago’s own Michael Cherrie. Caroline Taylor reports

  • Trinidad & Tobago actor Michael Cherrie. Photo by Scully Photography courtesy Question Mark Entertainment
  • Regina King stars as Shirley Chisholm in the Netflix film Shirley. Photo courtesy Netflix
  • Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 campaign poster. The slogan was also the title of her autobiography. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
  • Michael Cherrie portrays Conrad Chisholm, the first husband of Shirley Chisholm (portrayed by Regina King) in Shirley. Photo courtesy Netflix
  • Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm thanks delegates during the third session of the 1972 Democratic National Convention, Miami, Florida. Photo by Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Caribbean immigrants have played significant roles in shaping American life and politics. And come 22 March, 2024, Netflix brings to life the pioneering presidential run of one such immigrant — Shirley Chisholm.

Aptly named Shirley, the biographical drama — written and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) — stars the Oscar, Emmy, and Golden Globe award-winning multi-hyphenate Regina King along with Terrence Howard, Lance Reddick, Lucas Hedges, André Holland, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Trinidad’s “Black Brando” Michael Cherrie as her first husband, Conrad.

The film depicts Chisholm’s 1972 run to be the Democrats’ presidential nominee. It was announced back in February 2021, with additional casting — including Cherrie’s — revealed in December of that year.

Shirley Anita Chisholm (née St Hill) was born on 30 November, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York to Charles Christopher St Hill (born in what was then British Guiana before moving to Barbados) and Ruby Seale of Christ Church, Barbados. She lived in Barbados from ages five through nine, continuing to identify herself as Barbadian-American through the rest of her life.

She was talented and driven, excelling at school and becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the US Congress in 1968, representing New York’s 12th congressional district in Brooklyn for seven terms (1969–1983). She also became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. She passed away in 2005, receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously from President Obama in 2015.

Far too little is known about her for Regina King’s liking, which is in part what makes this film so important. “It was always a little disheartening to have so many people over the years not know who Shirley Chisholm was,” King told Harper’s Bazaar in January. “What she did was so pioneering. She was a true maverick and, you know, we use this term all the time, but she was a true first.”

King also credits Chisholm’s Caribbean roots with who she became.

“Growing up in Barbados with her grandmother is where she just received a really regimented sense of expectations and strength,” King continued. “That concept of not accepting anything less than the best for yourself was absolutely instilled in her from her grandmother … Also, the schools in Barbados had much more rigorous standards than America. The workload was more intense. By the time she got back to the States, she was so ahead of everyone. She felt such a strong sense of ‘If it’s not me, then who?’”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Cherrie. “I’m really excited to see what the response is actually going to be,” he told Caribbean Beat in early February. “A film about this woman who had the belly to go up against Nixon in ‘72 — never giving up the fight … I think it’s going to expose a whole new generation to this historical figure, the importance of the voting process, having a voice in the political process,” says Cherrie.

It’s also an extraordinary opportunity for him — an award-winning actor who has been much in demand in his native Trinidad & Tobago, working with some of the country’s and region’s most renowned playwrights, actors and directors — including Tony Hall, Albert Laveau, Rawle Gibbons, and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott.

He’s also done significant work in both the US and Britain, experiencing a major breakthrough with his casting and performance in the Channel 4 production of Caryl PhillipsThe Final Passage (1996), directed by the renowned Peter Hall (founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company). Cherrie received universal acclaim; Hall compared him to a young Marlon Brando.

“Growing up in Barbados with her grandmother is where she just received a really regimented sense of expectations and strength”

But the promise of a burgeoning career in Britain came to a screeching halt when Equity — the United Kingdom’s actors’ union — intervened, working to have Cherrie’s work authorisation denied. They argued he was taking work away from British actors.

Ever philosophical despite his disappointment (he’d been offered roles in Shakespeare productions at the National Theatre and the New Globe), Cherrie returned to Trinidad.

He worked steadily as an actor in local theatre, film, television, and commercials, also becoming a mainstay in international co-productions filmed in Trinidad. His credits include Men of Grey II: Flight of the Ibis (1996); Angel in a Cage (1997, for Canadian television); Danielle Dieffenthaller’s popular soap operas Westwood Park (1998) and The Reef (2007); Merchant/Ivory Films’ production of VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur (2001, directed by Ismail Merchant); Tony Hall and David Rudder’s calypso musical, The Brand New Lucky Diamond Horseshoe Club (in both the US and T&T, 2004–2006); Yao Ramesar’s Sista God (2006); Horace Ové’s The Ghost of Hing King Estate (2009); Limbo (2010, from Norwegian director Maria Sødahl); Home Again (2012) with CCH Pounder and Tatyana Ali; and Maya Cozier’s She Paradise (2020).

In between, he completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver, Colorado; and an undergraduate degree in film from the University of the West Indies — while also continuing to sporadically star in various theatrical productions in the US. What’s more, he still managed to find time to serve as Assistant Professor of Acting at the University of Trinidad & Tobago, a position he took up in 2009.

The Shirley opportunity was an unexpected one for Cherrie, right before his 50th birthday in late 2021. The film’s casting team was looking for a Caribbean actor to play Conrad, who was Jamaican. Cherrie’s management at Question Mark Entertainment (Simon Baptiste and Carolyn Pasea) insisted he audition.

They also shared the opportunity with some of their other clients, all of whom ended up working together in preparation. For Cherrie, that included some acting and dialect coaching sessions, before ultimately landing the role of a lifetime — again.

For Cherrie, that included some acting and dialect coaching sessions, before ultimately landing the role of a lifetime — again

“All of the principals really welcomed me into their sandbox, and it really meant a lot that someone like the late Lance Reddick was so impressed with my work.” He is full of admiration for all of his co-stars, and also identifies Howard and Reina King (who, along with her sister Regina and John Ridley, is one of the film’s producers) as being prime candidates for enjoying Trinidad Carnival.

International doors have opened and closed for Cherrie in the past, redirecting him back to meaningful work as an actor, educator, and arts advocate in Trinidad. But there’s no escaping the desire to be working regularly on projects of this calibre, on this scale.

He’s already a member of the American Actor’s Equity Association, with his Screen Actor’s Guild card to follow. And though the debate around non-American actors being cast in American productions continues to rage, the world certainly must have moved on sufficiently in the last 25 years for this never to be a hindrance to Cherrie again.

Most of all, Cherrie says he wants to keep growing. The title of our May 2007 feature on him (available on our website as part of our free, multi-decade digital archive) was “Cherrie blossoms”. There’s little doubt that’s exactly what he will continue to do for many years to come.

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.