‘Unapologetic’ is an Unflinching Exploration of Activism

“What is this helping?” is one of the first sentences uttered by a white restaurant patron unsettled in Unapologetic’s first scene, where protestors express the reality of the recent deaths of Black residents in their community to unsuspecting people eating brunch at restaurants. The scene perfectly encompasses the themes and motives of this documentary: a large and triumphant call to arms to make a more honest and equal world while people sit quietly trying to ignore not only the performance, but the actual knowledge of those who are destroyed and subjugated by these injustices.

Unapologetic chooses to be forthcoming with its intent in a way that disrupts the common, relaxed approach that many documentaries use to allow you to feel separate from the situation. It chooses to be bold and proud of the work it is helping to accomplish and if you aren’t with the program, it doesn’t matter because we are still fighting this fight regardless of how you feel. I have not seen a film that made me so proud to be Black in a long time, and in a world that can feel like it’s against me — that it’s okay to be and proud to be black.  

Unapologetic is a documentary by Ashley O’Shay as she follows two prominent abolitionist organizers, Bella and Janaé, and their work in Chicago within the Black Lives Matter movement during the protests for Justice for Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald, both of whom were murdered by members of the Chicago Police. Ashley expertly hones in on Chicago as clear representation of what has been occurring everywhere across the country in a city that is often misrepresented. Chicago has been a boogeyman for right-wing commentary to decry the amount of crime and poverty in the community in order to frighten viewers. In this film, Chicago is seen as what it actually is — a strong community that has been mismanaged and stigmatized

This holistic approach can be seen most vividly through the journeys both Bella and Janaé take to provide opportunities for their communities in their own ways. Janaé through her PhD candidacy and organizing through BYP100 to find ways to bring change through police reform and social work. Bella, an artist-activist, creates the Sister Survivor Network to help women have a safe space for support. The film provides moments to show how much the community is trying to build for a better future and how much of it is constantly met with resistance, whether through funding or the state itself. 

When Unapologetic levels its eye on the Chicago police department and its handling of Rekia Boyd and Laquan McDonald’s death, it paints a too familiar picture of frustration and ambivalence. We watch as several community members demand answers and justice to hold the officers who caused their deaths accountable for their actions. We also see how much the state drags its feet before making decisions. It is only after Mayor Rahm Emanuel fires police superintendent Garry McCarthy that the city government seems to show some acknowledgement, but the problem is still there. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Anita Alvarez are still in power. The problem is not just one person though, it’s the system that allowed that person and people like them to keep rising within its ranks without any accountability for the harm done to the community. Unapologetic doesn’t flinch from this fact and reminds us of the constant fight by showing the effect it has on Bella and Janaé’s personal lives. 

Another strong aspect of the film is showing how much this work can take a toll on people’s lives by allowing us to see their lives. We see Bella and Janaé laugh and be around their families. We see Bella write to her brother who is in the prison system now and how much that shapes her activism and Janaé’s connection to her own father’s activism. These two women sacrifice much of their time and energy to try and make their community a better place and when we get to see the fruit of that hard work we can see how much it actually changes their community for the better. It shows how much we can do to help our own cities and towns if we work together for better solutions instead of waiting for the system to do it. 

Unapologetic is everything its name states. It is in your face with its righteous fury, its genuine sorrow, and its blinding light. This documentary is about the people who work to make their world a brighter place for everyone and proud of it. Unapologetic is everything opposite of that man who just wanted to sit and eat. It helped me feel unapologetic for who I am and what my beliefs are, and I hope you give it the chance to do the same for you.