The past four years of the Trump administration have seen Democrats valorize the work of Black organizers, particularly Black women, across the country. But they’ve done so only in the context of electoral politics, and to the extent that it’s secured them several seats in Congress and, most notably, the Oval Office. In fact, the day that President-elect Joe Biden was projected to win Georgia, hashtags and Instagram-ready graphics expressing the sentiment “Thank you, Black women” appeared all over left-leaning sectors of social media, with folks singing the praises of Stacey Abrams and a faceless bloc of Southern Black women who “saved the country from itself.” Assumptions about Black women’s political actions are rarely framed in the context of self-preservation and survival, instead often misrepresented as eager rectifications of white America’s moral failings or pursuits of justice for our straight cis male counterparts. Liberal admirers also tend to ignore Black women with radical leftist politics, those whose aspirations extend far beyond reform and whose ways of achieving them sit outside the lines of mainstream respectability.
In her debut feature documentary Unapologetic, filmmaker Ashley O’Shay tries to fill in these narrative gaps. Following two Chicago prison abolitionists on their respective paths in fighting for Black liberation, O’Shay captures the brilliance and determination of her subjects, as well as the struggle and exhaustion that come with dedicating one’s life to radical labor. The audience is asked to reckon with Black women’s lack of visibility in the Black Lives Matter movement, and to ask why they bear the collective burden of fighting for Black liberation and whether they will ever find relief.
In the height of social media activism, when black squares equal solidarity and social justice slideshows are in endless supply, I often wonder if the average well-meaning person knows what organizers actually do, or how much they do. Unapologetic depicts the grueling days and hard nights spent at planned demonstrations, impromptu rallies, police board meetings, organization meetings, and more — not to mention the emotional labor all this requires. We see this most starkly with activist and PhD candidate Janae Bonsu, who displays a palpable sense of exhaustion throughout the film as she tries to balance her academic life, her activism with Black Youth Project 100, and allowing herself the transient joy of time with family and loved ones.
The documentary also features scholar and raptivist Ambrell “Bella” Gambrell, who is introduced on a slightly more personal level. The poetic 22-year-old speaks at length about the cycle of incarceration that has disrupted her family since she was in her mother’s womb, and how it resulted in her fight for abolition. We watch her process the pain and anger of her experiences through the urgent mode of rap, which she often performs in the middle of protests. Verses raging against unjust systems and state-sanctioned violence are punctuated with admiration and gratitude for Black resistance. “We are making Black history. We are making Black history,” she ends one of her raps surrounded by a crowd at a protest.
Like Lifetime’s series Surviving R. Kelly (which O’Shay worked on), about the R&B singer’s long history of abusing Black women and girls, and HBO Max’s On The Record, which centers victims of hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Unapologetic explores the unique ways that Black women experience oppression in comparison to their straight cis male counterparts (the film also acknowledges the unique travails of femmes, trans people, and nonbinary folks). Scenes of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his successor Lori Lightfoot dismissing and criticizing calls for the arrest of police offer Dante Servin, who shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2012, dovetail with clips of Black women being spoken over and interrupted at protests by Black men with a desire to be heard at their expense. Who knows how long it will take our country and the Black community to understand how these acts of violence intersect and build upon one another, and then care enough to do something about them. For now, the world will keep depending on the labor of Black women like it always has. But as Unapologetic makes clear, they can’t wait forever.