Unapologetic Black activists: ‘If movements don’t tell our own stories, somebody else will’ | Documentary films


In the month that both Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 have racked up multiple Oscar nominations, it’s another film, one well outside the Hollywood awards circuit, that’s bringing us up to date on the struggle for Black liberation. Unapologetic is an independently made documentary, following two young activists during four of the most tumultuous years in recent Chicago politics, as community anger mounted over the fatal police shootings of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd and 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Director Ashley O’Shay was herself just 22 and fresh out of film school when she moved to the city and began filming: “Like, if you were in Chicago in the fall of 2015, you must have been living under a rock if you were not aware of what young, Black folks were doing.”

One of those was Janaé Bonsu, shown in the film balancing her organising work with Black Youth Project 100 with her PhD dissertation on “envisioning what safety looks like” outside the current criminal justice system. She says she quickly understood the aims of O’Shay’s project: “Social movements are way more than charismatic, male figureheads. She wanted to tell that and I wanted to be a part of that.”

Ambrell “Bella BAHHS” Gambrell, who first learned about leadership through West Side street gangs, was a little more wary: “My experience within organising in Chicago, it’s been different than a lot of my peers because it was all scholars and people in academia. All the people I know who organised communities was hood. Like, it had nothing to do with the theories, nothing nobody read in a book – it was about protecting where you’re from.” These days, Gambrell is a self-described “raptivist” who uses her art and life experience to bridge divides in the movement. “Even just last year, with all the uprisings; that was a very different population of people than the people who get put on the mics to talk about what’s going on. I move in both circles.”

Unapologetic challenges the Hollywood version of Black activism by foregrounding young, queer women from a variety of backgrounds, but it also upends the assumption that such films must necessarily be late 60s-set period pieces. The revolution continues, and sometimes in unexpected places. One early scene, for instance, happens in the midst of a busy brunch spot on Chicago’s well-to-do North Side, where the happy chatter of mimosa-sipping, mostly white diners is disrupted when a group of mostly Black activists enters the restaurant and begins moving among the tables loudly reciting the names of Black people killed by Chicago PD. Most of the diners sit in awkward silence, some hide their faces behind menus. It’s a scene as exquisitely edgy as any Borat prank, only with the added righteous thrill of a point well made.

Putting that scene at the top of the film was itself an act of disruption, says O’Shay: “It immediately unsettles the viewer and forces them to think about where they stand on the issue, especially when we’re in this age of the white liberal who’s often allied, theoretically, but not necessarily in action.” Still, the primary intended audience for this film isn’t so much the oblivious brunch-eaters, says producer Morgan Johnson: “Journalism is the first draft of history, you know? We do this for generations upon generations who are gonna look back on this moment and say, ‘What happened?’ And we’re thinking about who those people are and what they need to know.”

One lesson that future activists might glean is the importance of taking time away from the struggle to recuperate and reflect. As well as the high drama of their protest actions, O’Shay’s camera captures the gentle comedy of her subjects in their downtime – eating dinners with their families, joking around about their dating lives and dancing to Beyoncé’s Formation.

Organised … ‘raptivist’ Ambrell ‘Bella BAHHS’ Gambrell.
Organised … ‘raptivist’ Ambrell ‘Bella BAHHS’ Gambrell. Photograph: Christine Irvine

Did spending time together in these more informal settings result in any loss of professional distance? If so, O’Shay doesn’t regret it: “One of the things I felt makes the film unique, is that you can tell that a Black woman made it,” she says. “Part of that is because of the relationships that I cultivated with Janaé and Bella.” Both O’Shay and Johnson also question whether objectivity in film-making is not only desirable, but possible. “There were moments where we were like, OK, we need to kind of map out, like, who [former Chicago mayor] Rahm Emanuel is and his whole stake in this system,” says O’Shay. “But I didn’t necessarily think that meant I needed to privilege their perspectives. We just need to have the facts correct.”

For all involved in the film, Unapologetic isn’t just a record of the movement, it is the movement. “Like this, right now; having this conversation with you, I consider activism,” says Gambrell. “Knowing that this film is being seen by people in parts of the world that I’ve never visited and maybe never will … people can connect it to what they’re going through right now. And that’s really powerful to me.”

For Chicago’s real-life heirs to Fred Hampton’s legacy, the recent revival of popular interest in protest stories is, for the most part, welcome. But, says Bonsu, it also makes documentaries like this one all the more urgent: “If movements don’t tell our own stories, then somebody else will – and they’ll probably tell it wrong.”

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