TIFF Next Wave Film Festival 2021: Unapologetic

Black women and girls have a heavy load to bear. We are nurturers and fighters, supporters and innovators, working behind the scenes caring for families, lovers and doing the work. Often, we go unnoticed because that has been the narrative for so long. We can be rendered voiceless, and when we speak up, we are seen as aggressive, difficult, full of attitude – basically any negative connotation you can think of. If we stay silent, we are aloof, uppity and distant. So, what’s a Black woman to do? Make a documentary about Black women activists, that’s what. Ashley O’Shay gives us an intimate and candid look at two young women and their fight for justice in the documentary, Unapologetic.

Janaé Bonsu and raptivist Bella BAHHS (Black Ancestors Here Healing Society) are two young women in Chicago working for change. Both are fueled by police violence against Black people, especially the murder of Rekia Boyd in 2012, a young Black woman shot by police officer Dante Servin who eventually walked away from prosecution. And Laquan McDonald, the teen shot 16 times in 2014, and the concealed dashcam video of his murder causing event more controversy and Black trauma.

This bureaucratic corruption within the Chicago Police department and the former mayor Rahm Emanuel’s stealthy and underhanded machinations instilled anger and activism in the Black community. Young abolitionists stage flash mobs in gentrified restaurants, attend council meetings and protest to hold those in power accountable. Both Janaé and Bella join organizations like BYP100, where black women in the community organize and activate. The two women approach their activism from two different arenas. Janaé is a Ph.D. student working to present her dissertation on what safety would look like outside the police, judicial and welfare systems, especially for Black women. She’s inspired by her father, who was also an activist. Bella is moved by words. She is a rapper and spoken word artist raised by her grandmother because her parents were incarcerated for drug offences. She wants to see the system change for Black women who have been jailed and its impact on families. Both struggle to reach their goals, and O’Shay shows us how their patience and determination bring change to their Black communities.

Above image: Janaé Bonsu. Photo credit: Tom Callahan.   Featured Image: Bella Bahhs. Photo credit Chan C. Smith.

There was no way I could approach this film without emotion. I thought I would cry as I watched real activism in action, but I found myself angry. Angry because, as a Black woman, I have felt muted for most of my life, and at 50, I’m finally finding my voice. A lot has to do with the summer of 2020 and the blatant murder of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and the countless other Black bodies that have been harmed and swept under the rug. A lot also had to do with suppressing the rage I felt for decades, so I didn’t make other people uncomfortable. Suppressing my voice has done much damage to my psyche, so I felt the anger boil up as these two women, at least two decades younger than me, go on this journey of fighting to raise their voices loud enough for the powerful to hear. But that anger changed to pride as I saw them gather with other young Black people and Black queer millennials to form alliances with each other; many young Black women unifying because of the love they all have for their community. I saw young Black women filled with passion, trauma, anger and joy, all dedicating their lives to the cause of justice.

What I also loved about this documentary is the eye behind the camera. As a young Black filmmaker sharing a specific viewpoint, O’Shay proves that a Black woman’s perspective is necessary and possible when telling these stories. She adds to the authenticity and humanizes two women who would otherwise be faces in a crowd if they were even noticed. She helps the cause take up space, be visible and shows that the frontlines of protests are also led by Black women who are capable, passionate and absolutely unapologetic.

Every Black woman and girl needs to see this documentary for inspiration and support. And to see that we have been here all along, and our voices count and can make a change.

Unapologetic has been making the festival rounds in 2020, and you can see it during the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival streaming from 10 am February 12.

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