“Unapologetic” Explores Activism by Black Women

The documentary film, “Unapologetic” tells the story of two black women, Janae Bonsu and Bella Bahhs whose upbringing and experiences shape their activism and views on Black Liberation.  The documentary provides an intensely personal look into their work within the movement that highlighted the police murder of Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, and other senseless police killings.

Directed by Chicagoan, Ashley O’Shay, “Unapologetic” debuts at the Gene Siskel film center as part of the Black Harvest Film Festival.  As the documentary unfolds, audiences can get a glimpse inside the work of abolitionist organizers as they deal with the criminal justice system, the community, and city officials.  Janae Bonsu is a 24-year-old Ph.D. candidate who works with the Chicago Chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100). This organization seeks progressive change in black communities through policy and direct action.   She serves as the national policy chair.  In Unapologetic, Janae works to complete her Ph.D. dissertation all while balancing the demands of her activism. Bella Bahhs is a 22-year-old activist born and raised on the west side of Chicago.  A “Rap-tivist”, she uses her art as a form of activism.  Her journey is different. She is raised by her grandmother while both of her parents are incarcerated. Audiences learn how her upbringing thrust her into activism while she still grieves her grandmother’s death.

In “unapologetic”, we watch two young black women explore what it means to be leaders in this movement and how each attempt to balance the important work they do, their futures, and their impact on the social justice movement.

Unapologetic Chicago Defender
Director Ashley O’Shay
Photo Credit: Jameel Bridgewater

Chicago Defender:  What inspired you to create the film, “Unapologetic”?

Ashley O’Shay:  I was inspired by black women in the Chicago Community.  There was a lot going on with young black people organizing in the city, but I was able to directly connect to it. The people that were being centered were centering themselves and leading the charge were young black women and queer people. I had never felt uplifted in the way I should have in my formal education so for me to have the opportunity to capture this moment, not just for the spectacle or sensationalism of it all but to go more in-depth with these leaders, it felt like an important archive that was needed.  As a black woman, it helped me grow in the issues I want to speak out against or for.

Chicago Defender:  There have been so many protests in the last few years, and I’ve noticed an incredible amount of scrutiny, and criticism, often from black people.  This extra scrutiny and criticism were often aimed at those in leadership positions, black women, and queer people who have consistently been on the front lines of social justice.  How do you reconcile some of the hate and extra criticism you receive from the same people you are trying to help and uplift?

Bella Bahhs: You know, we must understand how oppression works. We understand that everyone is not prepared to come with us. We must remember that there is a precedent for this.  Frederick Douglass was talking about free as a system, a lot of people thought he was crazy and felt that that would never happen. And we will never see the end of slavery, right? Because it was just the way that things work. So, we understand that there are people who do not understand where we’re coming from. Our responsibility isn’t to make sure everyone sees the world the way that we see it. Our responsibility is to help those people who do want something better and to help them contribute. We must remember to trust the process and trust that the work we are doing today will make a difference tomorrow, even if it doesn’t feel like that now.

Ashley O’Shay:  I think there’s always a process of unlearning and relearning. That is an opportunity for our community. Even for me.  When I began the process of filming, “Unapologetic”, I only knew the recent history of social movements in black communities how black women have consistently contributed their voice and their work to black social movements as early as the civil rights movement, and I’m sure even before that, and so it was also a process of unlearning for me.  For me, it helped me see that there are many ways that we can organize. It doesn’t have to look one way or sound one way. Historically so many different identities and approaches have elevated this work.

Chicago Defender:  It seems like black women and queer voices get pushed into the background of history even when the contributions have been so great. When it comes to these areas, did you have any idea of the impact that you would have not just in the areas of social justice, but in the black queer community?

Ashley O’Shay:  I had an inkling. It sustained me when I didn’t have funding or when there was a standstill on production.  I knew in my spirit that this was an important moment to be captured. It’s like you said about us getting lost in these stories.  I think I knew how important that was for me and making my connections as a black woman filmmaker. I hope it is inspiring and motivates more young and queer people to get involved.  Sometimes it’s just being seen and seeing yourself reflected in these movements to affirm your passion for it.

Chicago Defender: How did your own life experiences your growing up? How did that bring you to your activism now?

Bella Bahhs: I didn’t understand my life as work until recently.  The things that I’m passionate about or the things that I advocate for. I didn’t understand that as work until I joined movement spaces, but I’ve always been an advocate for a different world and different ways of handling or understanding, or responding to black communities and what we go through. So much of my life has been impacted by these systems. My parents were incarcerated by the time I was three months old, so I’ve always known mass incarceration was destructive. I’ve seen what it does to families and communities.  What it does to a young person’s understanding of their place in the world and how they see themselves.  I’ve always seen the world differently.

I’ve always had a different understanding of what justice is and what it isn’t. When I found this community of activists and organizers, they helped give language to the things I was experiencing in life and it ignited something in me that said, I want to make something different.

Chicago Defender:  Renika Boyd’s killer resigned, Laquan McDonald’s killer is in prison, George Floyd’s murderer is also in prison. What does that mean for the movement? Is there progress?

Bella Bahhs:  These killings pulled the veil off. We can now stop pretending we are living in a post-racial society.  Racism is still here even when it looks different. Lynchings are now police killings on body cams.  There is still much work that needs to be done.  The sentencings of these murderers don’t get us very far because there are so many, and they all aren’t captured on video.  It goes beyond holding officers accountable, it’s about a failed system.  it does not matter. good cop, bad cop, the system is wrong, even if police officers do their jobs correctly. And they do not kill the person in the street, even if they are rational, we still are going to see this proportionate arrest of black and brown people, of trans people of queer people, we’re still going to see this disparity because that is what policing is designed to do. So, at this point, we’re not even, we’re not even saying we want you to send this officer to this officer, we want you to defund the police, and invest in systems that keep us safe policing has never kept us safe.

Chicago Defender: Fighting injustice and inequality can take a toll on you.  How do you both stay balanced? How do you find joy in the midst of it all?

Ashley O’Shay:  It’s an ongoing process.  During the making of “Unapologetic, I was really intentional about working with other young black creatives that I knew were experiencing some of the same things or those who were impacted in similar ways. We made decisions such as not showing the videos of the Laquan McDonald killing because we have already been traumatized by other videos of police killings.  One of the things I love about Chicago is the black community is how we can hold space for one another. There has not been one moment where our community has experienced violence or reacted to violence that someone has not come and said, “how can we hold space for one another? How can we work towards healing? How did we get to this place in the first place where we’re having, to react to this? I really appreciate this organizing community, the larger black community in Chicago because I felt like they were there to help me unpack A lot of it.

Bella Bahhs:  I don’t know that I do.  I just know every day is an opportunity to resist.  My resistance comes out of my anger, sadness, and joy.  Using black joy as resistance is a tool for abolition. We have to find purpose in what we’re doing and find moments to celebrate one another.

Chicago Defender:  Ashley, as a filmmaker, what do you hope audiences get from this film?

Ashley O’Shay:  I hope that audiences use the film as a space to reflect.  There have been so few comprehensive media narratives told from the perspective of black women, I think people need to witness black women in power.   I also think there are people who want to get involved, be allies or be directly involved in the movement. However, I encourage people not to rush into it.  I think it’s important to enter movement in a place that makes sense for yourself and not for somebody else. So, for some it may be giving money, providing resources, or volunteering.  There are plenty of creative approaches to the movement for black lives.

“Unapologetic” runs at the Gene Siskel Film Center, in person, through August 26th. For tickets, please visit the website.  For more information on “Unapologetic” visit their website at www.unapologeticfilm.com


Danielle Sanders is a writer and journalist living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20 and @DanieSandersOfficial.


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