Unapologetic: On Black Women Making Cinema & Centering Themselves in the Narrative

By December 2, 2020Field News

Unapologetic poster courtesy of Kartemquin Films 


When Ashley O’Shay was growing up she mainly had Black women around her acting as her caretakers, teachers, close friends, confidants, and role models.

So it was natural when O’Shay, a novice filmmaker, picked up her camera, it was to tell the story of Black women whose stories aren’t often chronicled or told in major ways. This past summer, O’Shay released her first full-length film, Unapologetic.

Through her documentary, O’Shay helps explain the movement for Black lives and why so many recent protests and uprisings have been organized and led by African-American women.
Many of us are just now starting to study, listen and understand this current protest movement. O’Shay has delivered a sophisticated and layered film that interrogates and explains this movement through a Black, queer feminist lens.

Still, the film is being released, and even celebrated, at a time when there are conflicting public perspectives on how to handle police misconduct, law enforcement agencies’ swelling budgets, and the role of police in vulnerable, marginalized communities.

It’s no wonder that many in the mainstream public generally have affectionate and warm feelings related to police: from the very beginning of movie making, there have been films, television series and documentaries showcasing the lives of law enforcement and telling their stories, research and news reports show.

But films uplifting the leadership, evolution, development and struggles of Black girls and women are less common, said Karla Fuller, a lecturer and associate professor in the Cinema and Television Arts Department at Columbia College Chicago. Movies and films have the power to challenge stereotypes and change hearts and minds, Fuller said. But the only way to do that is to give the backstory of Black women in the movement who are often only seen from a one-dimensional lens on the nightly news.

“The way to change…is to humanize and focus on individual stories, background, families, friends, support and struggle,” Fuller explained. “That is the way to get to people’s hearts. It’s the only way. Because right now, not enough people see Black humanity.”

Sergio Mims, who selected Unapologetic to be screened at the Black Harvest Film Festival, echoed a similar sentiment. But it’s the uniqueness of the film that compelled him to screen it, said Mims, a film critic and co-programmer of the popular, Chicago-based film festival, which showcases the stories, images, heritage and history of the Black experience worldwide.

“It’s a Chicago movie and it’s about political activism [here],” he said. “Chicago has a long history of political activism … but there really haven’t been a lot of films about it, which is hard to think about.”

The films that highlight activism, tend to focus on an older generation of men, Mims said. Unapologetic challenges that narrative, he said.

“It profiles two women, from two very different backgrounds, but who came together for the same purpose. That was even more fascinating,” he said.

A priority of Field’s Media and Storytelling portfolio is to support voices from Chicago’s communities that are too often overlooked. We are especially focused on African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American (ALAANA) voices that provide balanced perspectives and nuanced views from residents who don’t get their stories told.

Documentary films specifically can be used to advance social change. But too often, people of color don’t have ownership of stories in their communities, according to Beyond Inclusion, a Ford Foundation research report written by Sahar Driver, PhD. Marginalized residents are excluded from social justice storytelling and don’t benefit from its transformative potential, the report revealed. The Ford Foundation also helped fund Unapologetic. 

For five years, O’Shay filmed the journey and experiences of two African-American women in Chicago who are frontline organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ambrell Gambrall is better known as “Bella BAHHS” and is an artist and daughter of incarcerated parents. She has seen directly the impact of the prison industrial complex on her West Side family. And as a result, she turns to organizing and activism as a path toward Black liberation, the film documents.

Janaé Bonsu, the second protagonist, is pursuing a doctoral degree during filming. Through her research and organizing, Bonsu came to understand the way systemic racism and especially the criminal justice system damaged Black families.

The film goes beyond the women’s roles in marches and rallies and takes viewers into their homes and quiet spaces, and into intimate moments with their families.

“I started this film because I felt, what was lacking, was a comprehensive media piece about the lives of women behind this movement,” O’Shay said. “I knew these women had lives, passions, careers and loved ones outside of their public images and personas. I wanted viewers to see there are all types of women involved in this movement. It’s not just one particular idea – a Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King or religious-type leader. This movement comprises all types of people.”

Still, O’Shay’s film is revolutionary because it focuses on Black women, who have been historically excluded as documentary subjects. As a Black woman director, O’Shay herself is a rarity because of obstacles in the film industry and systemic racism.

“I think that who is behind the lens matters as much as who is in front of the lens,” O’Shay said recently. “When I go out into the field with my camera to document a protest event or rally, I’m still a Black woman in America. That is still how people are going to see me. And that’s not something I feel I can abandon because I have a camera in my hands.”

When O’Shay premiered her film in Chicago over the summer – at an outdoor, socially distant screening – she tried to limit the audience to 50 guests. But as word spread, nearly twice that number showed up, forcing her to scramble to get enough headphones so everyone spread out on their blankets and lawn chairs on the grass lot behind the Museum of Science and Industry could watch.
O’Shay admits that this moment means her film has mostly been embraced warmly. Still, she worries about how unwelcoming cinema can be for ambitious artists.

“I’m privileged,” she said. “I’ve been trained. But there are people who have great stories … who don’t get access into spaces because institutions too often only believe in and invest in one type of person.

“So ultimately, I wish there was more risk-taking by investors, gatekeepers and financiers. They decide what the media space will look like and they should see, there is not enough diversity there.”

Lolly Bowean
Media & Storytelling Program Officer 


Lolly Bowean manages the Media & Storytelling portfolio. The goals of the Field Foundation’s Media & Storytelling program, a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Democracy Fund, are to: create more just and inclusive narratives about Chicago that foster policy change; amplify the voices and impact of African, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Native American journalists, media makers and storytellers in the local media landscape; and support more reporting and storytelling by traditional and alternative journalism platforms about the root causes of the city’s inequities. Learn more about our program here.

We begin accepting applications for the next grant cycle on December 15. The deadline for submission is January 15.

Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund


The Chicago Racial Justice Pooled Fund is a commitment from thirteen foundations to raise and move $3M to Chicago organizations building and sustaining movements for justice that center Black lives and address anti-Blackness. The Fund will provide grants to Black-led community organizing groups as well as allied community organizing groups addressing anti-Blackness. While $3M is not an equitable amount to address the violence that racial injustice has ravaged, this is the first step of many needed towards a more just Chicago. The Field Foundation is a proud contributor.

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Registration Now Open for Field Foundation Information Session 


The Field Foundation is hosting an information session at 11 am, Tuesday, December 15, 2020. The Letter of Inquiry portal for summer 2021 grant consideration also opens that day. The session will provide general guidelines to our grant making and include details about our grants in Art, Justice, Media & Storytelling and the Leaders for a New Chicago Award. Registration is now open.

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