The documentary “Unapologetic” directed by Ashley O’Shay, is among the 2021 International Documentary Association (IDA) Awards Best Feature shortlist. Unapologetic will screen at DOC NYC (Nov. 11-20), Black Harvest (Nov. 6-30), New Orleans Film Festival (Nov. 6 – 22), Cucalorus (Nov. 22) and more.
Unapologetic captures a tense and polarizing moment in Chicago’s fight for the livelihood of its Black residents. The film follows Janaé and Bella, two young abolitionist organizers, as they work within the Movement for Black Lives to seek justice for Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, two young Black people killed by Chicago police. They aim to elevate a progressive platform for criminal justice to a police board led by Lori Lightfoot and a complicit city administration, while also elevating leadership by women and femmes.
JANAÉ BONSU, 24, moves from South Carolina to Chicago committed to pursuing her PHD in social work. However, in the midst of all of the trauma surrounding state and intra-community violence, the movement calls her for a higher purpose. She joins the Chicago chapter of Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), a young activist organization committed to progressive change in Black communities through policy and direct action. Janaé ventures beyond the ivory towers of her university knee deep into the Movement, eventually rising the ranks to national policy chair. However, her enthusiasm to organize wanes as challenges and controversy strike the organization, forcing her to grapple with the physical and mental toll of leadership.
With her academics faltering, she questions whether she has the stamina to achieve her personal goals while still fighting the good fight.
Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, a loudspeaker closely follows Chicago-native BELLA BAHHS, 22, at a protest as she proclaims, “this is Black history that we are making! Even if we don’t, our stories gon’ make it!” The crowd erupts. Soon after, a video of this performance goes viral, changing her presence both within and outside her Chicago community. She is thrust to the forefront of the Movement as an artist-activist. Internally, however, Bella grapples with the recent death of her grandmother, her primary caretaker while her parents were incarcerated. Only after Bella attends a picnic for a historic, local gang do we uncover her grandmother’s roots as a respected gang leader. But “gang” means something different to Bella; to her, they were the community leaders that gave kids school supplies and made sure the block was fed. So, when Bella powerfully leads the chant: “Protect and serve, we are the police! We’re taking back our community!,” it’s inspired by the grassroots leadership of the street warriors that raised her.
Throughout the film, we see how movement actions play out in the landscape of ‘Chicago’s city politics. After a slew of protests in response to the murder and coverup of Laquan McDonald, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fires Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy. While seen as a win for the organizing community, our characters continue fighting deep, personal battles. After failing an assignment and risking her doctoral career, Janaé realizes the ways in which organizing can cause her to overextend herself. For Bella, the stakes are even higher. Her brother is sentenced to fifty years in prison, leaving her to balance her true purpose in movement work while her family struggles to survive within the criminal justice system. Furthermore, discord within the organizing community moves Janaé and Bella to reconsider the impact of their multi-year efforts. They find themselves unable to separate the movement from their personal lives and begin to ask – in a Trump-era America – what does a sustainable lifestyle look like for both their community and their own well being?
After winning a Soros Justice Fellowship to pursue work in criminal justice reform, Bella makes the courageous decision to create the Sister Survivor Network, an organization that aims to help heal women impacted by America’s prison system. Janaé overcomes the challenges of balancing organizing work and her PhD program by being elevated to the National Co-Director of BYP 100 and officially becoming a PhD candidate; in an emotional scene, she triumphantly defends her dissertation proposal.
DOC NYC (November 11-20)
New York Premiere, Nov 11-19
Black Harvest Film Festival (November 6-30)
Chicago Premiere, Nov 7-20
“How Culture and Film Move Movements” Panel with director Ashley O’Shayon Tuesday, Nov 24 at 6pm CT // 7pm ET
The DocYard (November 13-19)
Live Q&A with director Ashley O’Shay and editor Rubin Danielson Monday, Nov 16 at 6pm CT // 7pm ET
New Orleans Film Festival (November 6-22)
Louisiana Premiere, Nov 6-22
St. Louis International Film Festival (November 5-22)
Cucalorus Festival (November 11-25)
image+nation LGBTQ+ Montréal (November 19-December 6)