Ashley O’Shay’s first feature film, Unapologetic, is a documentary that speaks volumes about the many dimensions of Black women and their vast contributions as activists to the Black Lives Matter movement. O’Shay ‘s narrative arc follows two Chicago activists: Bella Bahhs, and Janaé Bonsu.
O’Shay is currently best-known as a producer for national companies including Lifetime, Ford Motor Company, and Boost Mobile (to name a few). FF2 is proud of this opportunity to introduce her to a wider audience. I conducted this interview with Ashley on Zoom.
SAT: How did you meet Bella and Janaé?
Ashley O’Shay: I found out about their work through the Chicago Police Board hearings where I was attending in the Fall of 2015. That was around the time a lot of young Black people were organizing around the killing of Rekia Boyd. The way they were looking to hold this police officer accountable was at these Chicago Police board meetings, monthly. They were asking for the firing of the officer. When I was attending these meetings, I was captivated by not only the young Black people in the space. But that a lot of them were Black women I could directly identify with.
Janaé was the leader, at the time, of the Black Youth Project 100. I sent her a cold email when I started to ideate about this project. I was interested in not only her work at BYP100. But also the fact she was starting this Ph.D. program at age 24. Janae was the first “yes” I received, and so I started going to different rallies, events, and campaigns with her. Shortly after we started filming, the tape of the killing of Laquan McDonald came out. After I went and documented that night of protest downtown and the week of protest that happened after that, I had a realization to know this project might be bigger than one organization. I started interviewing more women in the space.
Shortly after that, Bella was performing in front of police headquarters. Her energy was so captivating. I heard her performance and lyricism. That’s when I approached her and asked, “Hey, can I interview you for this little project I’m doing?” After I found out more about her background and the fact that she was from Chicago, that’s when we started to follow her a little more closely, like we were with Janaé.
SAT: Society tends to put Black women in a negative light. I like how the documentary portrayed us as humans with many layers because we are.
Ashley O’Shay: Yeah, that was a big emphasis for the project. It was significant to me to see Black women leading in space in a way that I had never seen, talking about Black people in social movements in my former education. I’ve been around women my whole life, church, home, and community. As a Black woman, I felt I could bring a necessary perspective to pull out those moments that are more intimate or show nuances on how we exist in the world outside of the spectacle of protest or being on the mic. I’m glad that came through.
SAT: You wore many hats as the producer, director, writer, and cinematographer. How did that play a role in your mental health, especially with the heavy tone of the documentary?
Ashley O’Shay: I got help [with the film] after year one. I had a supportive community throughout the whole process. When I was growing the idea into a feature-length film, I was still interning at Kartemquin Films. They were able to connect me to my first team members, my editor Rubin and my producer Morgan. They were able to help connect me to people that could help support my vision. And I was intentional about the fact that I wanted to create this with other young Black people.
Because a lot was taking a toll on me, I could unpack that with my crewmembers, and I didn’t have this kind of barrier of understanding we sometimes find with being in film spaces with the majority of white or the majority of males. So I had the support of the film community. And I took breaks. I was still freelancing at the time on smaller projects, and so sometimes, I would have to move away from the project.
SAT: Unapologetic has been viewed at 35 film festivals and has won three awards so far. Did you expect such a positive response?
Ashley O’Shay: Once Covid hit, we didn’t know what to expect. We were in the process of waiting for our festival clearance when March 2020 happened. So I think we were initially trying to make it the best release possible with our limitations. Luckily we premiered at the Blackstar Film Festival, which is intentional about cultivating black audiences. We also kind of premiered on the hills of the uprisings that were happening last Summer with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And so I think a lot of people were looking for guidance on how to get put their stake in the Movement. I’m not stating it maybe wouldn’t have had the same reception otherwise. But I think people are a lot more open to narratives around movement work.
SAT: Future projects?
Ashley O’Shay: I’m currently in the middle of two documentaries. One is a docuseries about my family’s Alabama patriarch and the 17 children he raised in Tuskegee and Mobile.
The other is confidential. But it deals with a suspect of a major crime that happened in the 1990s, which takes place in Indianapolis.
© Stephanie Taylor (8/16/21) — Special for FF2 Media
For more information on Unapologetic, click here.
Special thanks to Will Zang (Ashley O’Shay’s publicist) for providing pictures.