Courtesy of TIFF

Unapologetic Review: Activists Empowered

An inspiring ode to Black women activists

8 mins read

(USA, 86 Min.)
Dir. Ashley O’Shay

In the striking opening of Ashley O’Shay’s riveting documentary Unapologetic a protest erupts within a North Chicago restaurant as activists from the BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100) organization interrupt the predominantly white patrons having brunch. Customers sit visibly uncomfortable and annoyed as the activists chant the names of Black individuals, like Rekia Boyd, who have been gunned down by the police. It is a powerful image further heightened by the presence of a restaurant staffer who defiantly questions what such protests even achieve. He dismissively notes that “we all have TVs,” implying that the time and place for such awareness should be on the evening news.

It is clear in this moment that those who have the privilege of picking when they want to be informed are simply opting to change the channel. Much like the untouched brunches on that fateful day, nothing is being consumed. If they had been keeping up with the news, the patrons should be more upset about a system that is failing the communities on the West and South sides of Chicago than with their eggs Benedict getting cold. This indifference to the realities impacting the Black community is exactly why women like Janaé Bonsu and Ambrell “Bella BAHHS” Gambrell dedicate so much of their time, minds and bodies to the Movement for Black Lives.

O’Shay’s documentary uses Bonsu and Gambrell to not only highlight the grassroots activism that millennials are doing in Chicago, but also to show how integral Black women have been in the fight against injustice. While certain media outlets have painted modern activists, such Black Lives Matters protestors, as anarchists with no sense of actionable objectives, the film dispels this myth by showing it is educated Black women who are the true force behind these movements.

Women like Bonsu, a PHD candidate in social work, and Gambrell, a rapper and artist, could have easily devoted their focus to their studies and scholarship applications. However, they have a deep calling to social justice. Bonsu comes from a family of activists, so it was instilled in her from a young age that one does not simply turn the other cheek in the face of injustice. For her, not standing up for what’s right is an insult to both her community and her father. Gambrell harbours many of the same sentiments. Seeing firsthand how the prison-industrial complex reverberates within a family—her mother was pregnant with her when she was sent to jail and her brother is currently imprisoned—Gambrell uses the intricate wordplay of her rhymes to share knowledge on why the system needs abolishing.

What makes Bonsu and Gambrell’s resolve so rousing is that they openly embrace the steep uphill battle they face. They acknowledge the difficulty that comes with attempting to get others to reimagine a structure where policing does not make up 40% of the city’s operating budget. A world where it does not take 400 days, repeated pressure on prosecutor Anita Alvarez and mayor Rahm Emmanuel, and a court issued release of incriminating dash camera footage that has systematically been withheld, before an officer is charged for the murder he committed. However, they refuse to give nothing less than their all to make life better for the community they love. As Gambrell tells a crowd gathered to protest the death of Laquan McDonald, “even if we don’t, our stories will make it.”

In observing the resolve the women possess, O’Shay’s film effectively captures just how exhausting activism is. They may convey a ferocious energy when leading marches and confronting police, but the toll of constantly confronting trauma wears on the women. Unapologetic ensures the audience feels that sense of weariness as well. Whether it is the four-hour car ride Gambrell and her mother embark on to visit her brother in prison, unsure of if they will get in due to questionable admittance policies, or the way the Bonsu returns home from a BYP100 meeting only to jump straight into her dissertation, the burden these women are asked to bear is a heavy one.

While the film ultimately champions the contributions of Black women, Unapologetic also points out that the time has come to stop solely relying on them to save society from itself. As one of the women states, “Black women cannot continue to be the mules of the world.” The documentary is not afraid to call out those, especially Black men, who routinely stand on the sidelines, while women put in the work to plant the seeds of change. Often left to fight the huge system on their own, taking on Goliath armed with their words and not a slingshot, Black women are rarely given the respect or praise they deserve.

Although O’Shay celebrates the contribution of Black women in the fight against inequality, regardless of whether it is the systemic corruption in policing or LGBTQ rights, she ensures that viewer is reminded that Bonsu and Gambrell are more than mere activists. They are young women who find a brief sense of normalcy when discussing the complexities of dating with friends, letting loose at birthday parties, or finding solace spitting bars in the studio.

Unapologetic is an inspiring ode to the vital contribution of Black women have made and continue to make in activism movements. Women like Bonsu and Gambrell are carrying the torch for change that is lit by their deep love of their Chicago community. This affection for the community is echoed when Gambrell tells her fellow protesters early in the film “I love you like you were me.” If only we all had that same love for one another.

Unapologetic plays the virtual edition of TIFF Next Wave on February 12th.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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