Last summer saw the wider public engage in Black political and social activism in varying inadequate and insulting ways — black squares on Instagram, congresspeople kneeling while wearing kente cloth, antiracist slideshows and reading lists, state-sponsored street art, corporate statements. We can always count on white liberals, elected officials, and corporations to do the very least in the face of Black oppression. Ashley O’Shay’s documentary Unapologetic serves as a refreshing counter-narrative to those lower standards of activism that have been touted as radical work. It’s an urgent reminder of who is truly fighting on the frontlines.
The film depicts on-the-ground organizing within the movement for Black lives in Chicago in the aftermath of the police murders of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, primarily following young Black women Janaé Bonsu and Bella BAHHS. O’Shay strikes an important balance in admiring their brilliance and resolve without deifying them or rendering them invincible. It’s a stunning deconstruction of the “strong Black woman” and “Black female savior” tropes which have made Black women vital symbols within the liberal conscience while leaving them vulnerable to the most harm. Leading up to the film’s impending theatrical premiere, I spoke to O’Shay over the phone about her approach to capturing movement spaces and political unrest in Chicago.
Hyperallergic: How did you come up with the idea for the film?
Ashley O’Shay: I moved back to Chicago in the fall of 2015, and this was right around the time that a lot of young Black people were organizing around the killing of a young Black woman named Rekia Boyd. In particular, they were attending monthly police board hearings, trying to hold the officer who had murdered her accountable. And so I attended a few of those meetings, and I was really shook by the fact that not only were these young Black people organizing around policing in Chicago, but a lot of them were people I could directly identify with as a young Black woman. A lot of people that were centered in the space, that were leading chants and on the bullhorn were young. I had never seen this in my formal education when thinking about social movements.
That’s when I approached my first subject, Janaé. Shortly after, another police killing — a young Black boy named Laquan McDonald — began to circulate in the media and organizing spaces. That’s when I really began to think about the film more as a coming-of-age story about young Black women and queer folks within the movement space, thinking of it more as a longitudinal story as opposed to just around one case.
H: Given the history of infiltration in social movements, how were you able to build trust with this community?
AO: I think being a Black woman helped, as far as them being comfortable and feeling like they could open up to me. But I just tried to keep showing up as much as possible. Even when I wasn’t there with the camera or doing an interview, I would try to go to their different rallies to just show support and amplify the work they were doing. I think after a while, when someone keeps showing up like that, you can build that trust with them. And I think also that as I was building stronger relationships with my main subjects, Janaé and Bella, that helped make other organizers in the space feel more comfortable with me as well.
H: You filmed this documentary over four and a half years. Did you know you wanted to film for that long, or were you just following the political unrest and these activists’ stories until it felt complete?
AO: I wish I knew that it would be that long. No, I was just following everything that was of the moment. I was freshly graduated less than six months before I started the project. I was just getting started in my career, and I knew that I had interest in documentary film. And I think a big part of me just wanted to contribute to the moment. I felt like there were no comprehensive media pieces about leaders in the movement. And I think everyone had the feeling that this was a special moment in the city. So I really was just making sure it was archived, because no one knew when it might happen again.
H: I like that the film follows Janaé and Bella on their separate paths as activists, as opposed to watching them reacting to the events happening in Chicago.
AO: That was another part of the process that started to emerge as we filmed more and more. We had a number of assemblies and rough cuts that we showed different colleagues in different spaces. And it became clear that what people were resonating with the most wasn’t the protests or the events or rallies. While they still enjoyed or connected to the spectacle, they were really just asking all these questions about Janaé and Bella’s background and their hopes and dreams and connections to family, community.
And so over last two years of filming, we stopped filming a lot of the public events and leaned more into the character-driven narrative. That was a matter of staying present enough to determine if we’d given them a full arc or seen them progress in some way, which is partly why it took four and a half years.
H: The film is also very nuanced in showing the importance of Black women leaders but also dispelling this myth that representational politics automatically lead to liberation for Black people, particularly with Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot.
AO: Yeah. We see people like Lightfoot in administrative positions, you know, running a campaign and uplifting herself as this Black gay woman, but everyone knowing, like, hey girl. We saw you at the Chicago police board hearings telling people to shut up after their time was up, and basically saying there’s nothing productive about the work that young Black people are doing. And she has a history as a prosecutor and all these other things that show you that all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. I think depending on the space you’re in, it’s going to differ how your identity does or doesn’t show up. I think it’s really important to remember the communities that are actually doing the work for us.
H: The film depicts how emotionally and mentally taxing this type of work is — particularly with Janaé, who has that moment when she breaks down. I wonder what impact this film had on you, witnessing these women and being on the frontlines with them.
I definitely think their emotional state had a residual effect on me. Firstly, outside of them, I’ve always been an advocate for the movement for Black lives. And when I was approaching the film, it was because I wanted to contribute to the city and the moment because it was affecting me as a young Black person. I think filming them and spending so much time with them really opened up my understanding of people who are doing long-term organizing and how we ascribe one emotion, idea, or concept to organizers. And the process of making Unapologetic really showed me how unique the experience can be from person to person.