Ashley O’Shay is a prolific director and cinematographer that has finished filming her newest documentary, UNAPOLOGETIC. We caught up with her to discuss the film and the experiences she had working with young black activists.
The Knockturnal: How did UNAPOLOGETIC come to life and how did you go about getting both subjects, Janaé Bonsue and Bella BAHHS, on board?
Ashley O’Shay: I met Janaé in the fall of 2015, following a monthly hearing at Chicago Police Headquarters. After some time, young Black organizers shut down the meeting. They were calling for the firing of Dante Servin, the off-duty cop who killed a young Black woman named Rekia Boyd. Janaé was the co-chair of the Chicago chapter of Black Youth Project 100 at the time, while also beginning her first year of Ph.D. study at the age of 24. I was astounded by that, and interested to know more about how she struck a balance between the worlds of organizing and academia. I met Bella a little later, in December of that year, following the forced resignation of the city’s police superintendent. The community gathered again at Chicago Police HQ to celebrate the win, and Bella electrified the crowd with her performance. I knew at that moment that I wanted to know more about her journey. We connected, and I learned she was a Chicago Westside native using her artistry as an entry point into the movement. What better complement to Janaé’s story than her!
The Knockturnal: What was it like to work with Janaé Bonsu and Bella BAHHS on this documentary?
Ashley O’Shay: As a fellow Black 20-something, working with Janaé and Bella felt like discovering life with good friends. We were all learning in our own ways throughout the process, and it’s been an honor to see them grow and change over the past five years. They’re so invested in their work and have encouraged me to dive deeper into my passions and pursuits.
The Knockturnal: How did you get permission to shoot at all of these places?
Ashley O’Shay: For the most part, I followed the lead of the film subjects. The public disruptions did not require permission to film, as the public (legally) can only have a certain expectation of privacy. For the private places, we were always in conversations with the organizers of the space, to make sure we understood their goals and intentions prior to filming. Remaining transparent was essential throughout the whole process, especially with the general distrust of mainstream media within organizing spaces.
The Knockturnal: When did you first hear about the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Laquan Mcdonald?
Ashley O’Shay: I first heard about the death of Rekia Boyd while I was still in undergrad, living in a nearby suburb of Chicago. At the time, very few women had been fronted in mainstream media when it came to cases of police brutality. The work of groups like Black Youth Project 100 definitely brought the #SayHerName campaign to the forefront. As far as Laquan, if you lived in Chicago in November of 2015, it was very hard news to miss. Not only were we learning about the egregious 16 shots that officer Jason Van Dyke used to take his life, but also about the city’s attempts to cover it up completely. In a righteous rage, many residents took to the streets in the days subsequent.
The Knockturnal: Did the police or state legislature give you problems in making UNAPOLOGETIC?
Ashley O’Shay: This was another area where I really followed the lead of young Black organizers, as they always took the time to have contingency plans in place during direct actions. I often found that public figures would act or behave differently once they felt the camera’s presence. It became a tool of accountability; an extension of the movement, if you will. I very rarely felt unsafe moving through spaces with police or other public figures, as the community always looked out for one another
The Knockturnal: How would you describe the experience of working with organizations like BYP100 and the Sister Survivor Network?
Ashley O’Shay: Working with young Black abolitionist groups in Chicago was an amazing learning experience. I grew so much in my knowledge of Black movement, historical figures, and organizing tactics. These topics were largely missing from my formal education, so I felt privileged to be able to sit at the table with these amazingly smart folks, as well as work to amplify their message as much as possible.
The Knockturnal: I love that prolonged shot with the giant flock of birds flying around. Is there any symbolism behind that sequence?
Ashley O’Shay: We were so lucky to get that shot! We happened upon it as we were driving around the Western Illinois Correctional Center, while Bella and her mom visited her brother inside. When we got to the edit, our team thought it would be interesting to pair those visuals with the poem Bella wrote in her application for her Soros Justice Fellowship. The words are so harrowing, reminding us of the people that are left behind when we imprison large portions of our population. I think the birds represent the longing to break free, not just from the prison industrial complex, but from the many systems that limit the potential of Black people.
The Knockturnal: How do you describe the experience of this multitude of Black voices coming together for a greater cause?
Ashley O’Shay: What’s been most beautiful is witnessing young Black people exist in their full identities when coming to this work. So much of historical Black movement has suppressed Black women and femmes from bringing the issues that specifically affect them to the space. Unapologetic captures a season in which Chicago begins to shift this culture, talking about topics that affect those furthest at the margins. Black queer art, Black queer writing, Black queer media have all expanded since 2015, and the movement provides space for this approach.
The Knockturnal: Do you stay in touch with Janaé and Bella? Any information you can share on how they are doing?
Ashley O’Shay: Yes, we stay in regular communication. I consider them both friends at this point. Janaé is still working steadily towards completing her dissertation and is currently in the data collection phase. Bella continues to lend her artistry to the movement. She performed at many of the actions this summer and is actively part of a group that’s educating the public around defunding the police. We’re also tryna encourage her to release more music!
The Knockturnal: What’s next for you after this documentary?
Ashley O’Shay: Right now, I’m really just trying to get back into my artistic practice, especially as a cinematographer. I’ve been working in service of a number of docs and commercial projects, while still developing some ideas of my own. I have a project about my family patriarch that I’m starting some work on. But really, I’m just enjoying the moment and trying to go towards what feels right.