‘Unapologetic’ Centers Black Women Activists in Chicago

The buzzworthy documentary provides insight into the fight against anti-Black racism in the Windy City

A scene from ‘Unapologetic.’ Photo: Kartemquin Films

From the moment Unapologetic begins, it’s clear that it is not the typical documentary. It’s not just that Unapologetic centers Black women. In Chicago no less. It’s rather the way it does it. There’s an energy, vibrancy and even urgency to it. But, most importantly, it’s infused with love as well as passion. That’s a significant distinction because so often social justice documentaries are filled with passion and a lot of anger. In her feature documentary debut, director Ashley O’Shay centers not just the social justice issue at hand, but the activists themselves, sharing their motivations and backstories to lead.

Unapologetic focuses on Janaé Bonsu and Ambrell “Bella” Gambrell and their fight to racial and social justice. They are a fitting focus for such a documentary, as these two young women are unapologetically themselves all across the board. There’s an intimacy to Unapologetic often not seen in social justice documentaries, with the two subjects becoming so familiar they almost feel like personal friends in addition to champions. As they speak truth to power, they are unafraid to stand proudly for all Black women, including those who identify as queer as they do. It’s actually refreshing how matter-of-factly their sexuality is presented. It’s simply as it should be, just a part of who they are.

Within minutes of the doc, Janaé, representing the activist organization Black Youth Project 100 at a rally, makes her vision for the future clear. “I want to push us today to think about our future,” she says on film. “The reality is, especially Black women, [have] been working hard since the beginning of time and been supporting everybody.”

Because Bella, also known as Bella BAHHS (Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) , is a rapper as well as a community organizer, her voice is especially thunderous. Both women share their personal motivations behind their activism. For Janaé, who is a transplant to Chicago pursuing her doctorate in social work, her father’s activism as a young man serves as inspiration. Growing up the child of incarcerated parents raised by her grandmother drives Bella. Both women consistently show that they, and those around them, are keenly aware of the sexism that they and other Black women face, not in just their work, but society at large.

“I work within an organization that radically challenges that notion that women have limited capacity for leadership,” says Janaé, “and women leadership has been a lot more visible now than it’s ever been.”

That leadership, as shown in Unapologetic, has resulted in bringing much-needed attention to police killings of Black women too. While many in and outside Chicago know about Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teenager who was fatally shot 16 times by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014, they might be unaware of the police killing of Rekia Boyd by Chicago police officer Dante Servin in 2012. Unlike Van Dyke, who became the first Chicago police officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in decades, Servin was acquitted. Bella is especially aware of the double standard and addresses it in her music, which is an extension of her activism.

“My lyrics are very intentional about promoting Black liberation and uplifting other Black women,” Bella says in the doc. “When we talk about Rekia Boyd, it doesn’t get as much publicity as when we talk about Laquan McDonald. When we talk about Sandra Bland, it doesn’t get as much publicity as when we talk about Mike Brown, as we talk about Eric Garner.”

Unapologetic, like the docuseries City So Real also from Kartemquin Films, certainly dispels the national myth that Chicagoans are apathetic about their city. Unapologetic not only shows the consistent pressure put on Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot, when they were respectively mayor and head of the Chicago Police Board, but it does so from the perspective of Black women who are often ignored and, even worse, erased. The documentary, already shortlisted in the Best Feature category by the International Documentary Association, is making a buzz.

At one point in the doc, Bella, surrounded by a crowd as she raps, says this: “This is Black history that we are making. Even if we don’t, our stories gon’ make it.” And that’s exactly what Unapologetic ensures. Without O’Shay, who started the doc back in 2015 when, she, herself, was just 22, the work of activists like Janaé and Bella, and all of the company they keep, would go undocumented and uncelebrated.

ATL-based Ronda Racha Penrice is a writer/cultural critic specializing in film/TV, lifestyle, and more. She is the author of Black American History For Dummies.

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