Although shot a few years ago, the issues discussed in director Ashley O’Shay’s debut powerful and no-bullshit feature Unapologetic are disturbingly current. She profiles two uncompromising Black millennial organizers in Chicago who sought not only justice for the high-profile police killings of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald (among others), but also called for one officer to be thrown in jail, the police superintendent to be fired, and then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to step down.
At the time, graduate student Janaé Bonsu and rapper Bella “Bella Bahhs” Gambrell, two front-and-center abolitionists, saw the city they loved and lived in as a place that sanctioned and was complicit in violence against Black residents, and they felt the need to lead the effort to tear down the structure that made that possible. While director O’Shay has plenty of footage of both women at protests and rallies (all pre-pandemic), she also gets more personal and shines a light on how their decision to be community leaders has impacted their personal lives. This is not a film just about the issues, but it looks at how the issues shaped and transformed the lives of these two women as they grew up, from having family members incarcerated to the role activism played in their younger years.
We get lengthy samples of Bella’s rapping, both in the studio and on the streets, while Janaé nearly breaks down attempting to edit and finish her thesis in time to present it; we are right there with her and her ever-present anxiety. We see them both in social situations, gathering with friends to talk about the day’s issues, certainly, but also about who they are attracted to, their sexual orientation, and how those things impact each other. Not unlike the recent Judas and the Black Messiah, some of the finest moments in Unapologetic occur away from the podiums and microphones, and simply show these women as human beings with struggles that are both unique to them and others that are universal. They don’t appear to live the activist life 24/7, except they do because they are young Black women living in Chicago, making them targets more often than many others.
The film includes glimpses of current Mayor Lori Lightfoot when she was president of the Chicago Police Board and frequently at odds with the then mayor. But even she can’t answer questions from protestors who packed monthly meetings with the board demanding action and accountability. Unsurprisingly released by Kartemquin Films, Unapologetic is an inspiring, infuriating inside look at a movement that is one of many roads that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, while maintaining a long-standing Chicago tradition of keeping an eye on neighborhood concerns. A bit rough around the edges, the film still tells an important and captivating story about two young women finding their place in the world and excited about where it might take them.
The film is playing theatrically at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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