ASHLEY O'SHAY and MORGAN JOHNSON & Unapologetic
This week, we chat with director Ashley O’Shay and producer Morgan Johnson about their film Unapologetic. They talked about collaborating, their love for Chicago, and why this doc following two fierce abolitionist leaders coming of age within the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago is a timely watch. The film most recently screened at TIFF Next Wave Festival and will be playing at the Black Lesbian Film Festival and Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this weekend. Check out unapologeticflm.com to see where you can watch. Enjoy our conversation!
Click here to listen to our interview with Ashley O'Shay and Morgan Johnson on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
ASHLEY O'SHAY and MORGAN JOHNSON & Unapologetic
Larkin: Well, Ashley and Morgan, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. And if you could both just introduce yourselves a little bit and then tell us briefly, so our listeners know, about your film, Unapologetic.
Ashley: Yes. Hi everyone. My name is Ashley O'Shay. I am the director and producer of Unapologetic. I'm also a Chicago based cinematographer. Been working here for about the past five years and yes, my debut future Unapologetic, uh, which came out at the end of 2020 is a documentary feature that is a deep look into the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago. Tell through the experiences of two young Black queer women
Jennifer: We love collaboration. We collaborate a lot. And so we're always curious, um, to kind of hear about the origin story of your collaboration and, and how you came to start working on this project together.
Morgan: For me, it was (laughs) a collaboration that I didn't see coming. I had no intention of, of joining a film project, but I was so drawn to this story. thanks to Kartemquin kind of nudging me and reconnected me with Ashley. We both attended Northwestern, but I graduated some years ahead of her. Um, and I get, I got a chance to see an early demo, from Ashley and I was so drawn to the characters that I wrote a, uh, a long email of like, okay, here's everything,
Ashley: "A short dissertation"
Morgan: Here's everything I want to see in this demo. And then from then on that started our relationship.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly what Morgan said. She had just moved back to Chicago and, uh, the film was being incubated through Kartemquin, the documentary powerhouse here in Chicago. ANd I also really was trying to be intentional about building a team of young black creatives, uh, because I really wanted the film to feel like it was created by young black people, as well as featuring young black people, so.
Larkin: And can you tell us about the demo? That's interesting. What did you end up using the demo for and how did it change after Morgan became involved?
Ashley: Yeah, so the demo is, typically in documentary space folks put together a demo for fundraising purposes, uh, or even just like presenting the film to potential collaborators or production companies.
I think the one that I sent her was, uh, maybe a year and half a year and a half into production. Um, and at the time, I would describe it as a pretty chaotic. It wasn't, well, it's obviously, looking back, you know, I'm looking at it completely differently than at the time. I probably thought it was amazing, but, it was really a much more, if I remember incorrectly, it was following, um, it was much more of an event-focused piece. So originally we were really just thinking about doing like a top level picture of all of the work that young black organizations were doing around the city. So like I followed the fight against getting CSU close, uh, and the Say Her Name campaign.
And I was like, kind of trying to find the characters within that. But I will say, even though I thought like, you know, looking back, I don't think it was that great. It did, it did help us to get some of the first funding for the film and, you know, it just helped me decide shaping the overall structure of the story.
it's, it's a little different than a trailer in that you like try to map out like how the film will look from beginning to end. I don't even, we probably did as many demos as we did grant applications, like at least. 15 of them. And then at some point you stopped sending out demos and you started sending out a rough cut.
So I don't know we ever, we ever found quite the exact sweet spot, but, you know, once we were able to get enough funding to start cutting the film, we started to move away from that.
Larkin: Wow. that just feels, it feels sort of like, yeah, just the, not having a script in a documentary, you know, and then kind of finding your way in the story and how the film literally is growing as you're filming. Just that's such an undertaking. Kind of shifting a little bit, Ashley, you've crafted a number of short films and worked in commercials, but this was your first foray into the feature world. How was that transition and experience for you?
Ashley: It was a bit accidental. You know, I originally thought that Unapologetic was going to be a short film just following Jenae's kind of first semester as a PhD student.
And then, what all had happened like over the fall and winter of 2015, but, because of what happened over the fall and winter of 2015, with the tape of the killing of Laquan McDonald coming out and, the police superintendent being fired and, you know, a lot of just like disdain for Rahm Emanual and the Chicago police board.
I just felt that it was a pivotal and it was a hallmark moment for the city of Chicago. And I had also started to meet other young black feminist voices within the Movement for Black Lives. That, you know, it was encouraging to, to think about the film, uh, expanded beyond just like a 15 to 20 minute piece.
And so I think because of my naivete, my innocence, I jumped in with a ferocity that only a 22 year old can, um, But, um, I think because of the, you know, the strength of the story and, the institutional support I have from places like Kartemquin, I was able to, enter a number of fellowships, uh, like the Diverse Voices in Doc Fellowship with Kartemquin, with Firelight Media up in New York,with the Bay area, Video Coalition.
That really focused on like honing, uh, first time filmmaker, voices, and kind of literally walking us through like, The step-by-step process of, of making a feature length film, and, you know, had it not been for that, I think this film would have taken a totally different path. They may have still ended up being a short, um, because I was really being placed in rooms with, with like OGs of the game, like people have been doing this work for for many, many years and was able to just glean so many lessons and so much knowledge from, from them. And then I would take all that in and kind of just, so, went back to my team and be like, this is what we're supposed to be doing. Um, so definitely that, that institutional support like helped me get through those first couple of years until we were, we got the financial, infrastructure to be able to like pay a full team.
Um, I guess I could speak on it for a very long time. So like, Yeah, but that was, I really think just my young, I think not knowing a lot, honestly, is partially what encouraged me to do it because, um, I think just because of the frequency with which I was shooting and how much I was, I was gathering, I was like, well, it has to be a feature.
I can't distill all this down into something shorter than that.
Larkin: Wow. It sounds like such an unimaginable feat.
Jennifer: And Morgan, you said you weren't planning to get into a film project at the time. was this your also your first documentary feature-length project?
Morgan: It was not. I had been working with a production company in Milwaukee, three 71 for about three years, working on a variety of different documentary projects, some in partnership with cartel Quinn and, um, I had found my way back to Chicago with a very specific mission to, to make a dent in the journalism space, because I felt like Black narratives were under attack.
And it was like, Chicago seems to be in the political, national spotlight, in a way that I felt like was um, irresponsible and unhealthy and even traumatic sometimes for black Chicago ins. Um, this is during the Obama years. so that definitely like elevated the conversation around Chicago, around the entire world.
And we kind of got reduced to the statistic of being like the center of black quote unquote black on black violence. Um, so I had convinced people that I knew in the journalism space to come back to Chicago, to try to tackle this and to be a voice. This film fit directly into that mission, of course, um, and it's so unique in that it was coming through a lens of Black women and queer voices, which is something that was also missing in this space, in this conversation about Chicago and this conversation about movement work. and that's really what drew me to the project.
Jennifer: Love that. Yeah, the, the story is centered in Chicago. And so we were curious just what are your ties to the city? And if you could speak a little bit about your connection to Chicago.
Morgan: Well, I'm not a native Chicago in, in terms of Chicago terms. Like if I was traveling and I, and I met you in California, I might be like, Hey, I'm from Chicago, but I would never say that to a Chicagoan, because the first ones to be like, okay, what high school did you go? What block did you grow up? One? Like, they are so protective.
Uh, so even though, you know, uh, we both went to Northwestern, lived around the area I grew up, um, a little bit further North, um, in Illinois, um, in a, in an area called North Chicago. And, um, uh, but yeah, I, I like to say like the West side of Chicago adopted me okay.
That's where my office is, but you know, I'm very careful about. When I say that, who I say it to?
Ashley: Yes. I have a very similar sentiment to Morgan. I have been in the Chicago land area now for almost 10 years, which makes me feel so season. but I am originally from Indianapolis. And so that's my Midwest energy. I also grew up around, in and with a lot of black community and I came to Northwestern for film school.
And once I graduated, I, I literally told myself the only reason I would come back is if I got an internship at Kartemquin. And on the day I was getting on a flight, a one way flight to Oakland to be with my sister, I got an email saying that, you know, going to get interviewed and possibly accepted.
So I came back, um, less than three months after I left. And I, ever since then, basically I've been working on Unapologetic, um, while also just familiarizing myself with the documentary film scene and the, uh, kind of branded commercial content space as well. Um, but yeah, it's just, it's a special place. Um, and I knew I could never do a New York.
Just too much weird energy and I could probably still do California, but I think Chicago is, um, A great place to start your career in the film industry, because it's big enough that it has like that big industry, big city industry, bill, enough that, you know, you, you get that neighborhood feel like I've been working here for five years. And I, I feel that I have made a lot of really amazing connections that I couldn't have other places.
Larkin: Shifting gears a little bit, there was a moment in the film that really struck me. There were many moments that struck me, but I wanted to talk about one specifically. Uh, and I think this question is for Ashley, but, uh, You know, one of the themes you're exploring is intersectionality, of course, and the importance of black queer women organizers in these movements and I just feel like the film was revealing a lot of the behind the scenes work that they do in so many different ways. And I was struck by this moment when Janae is in the bathroom after her dissertation and we, as the audience, see the camera person who I think is Ashley, and I'm in the mirror and I just, I, I haven't really seen that in documentaries before maybe it happens, but, um, it just was really striking and it felt like a beautiful parallel to these themes you're examining, um, by literally showing us the behind the scene work of the documentary itself. Um, and an Ashley. I just wondered if you could talk about that and the decision to include that moment in the film.
Ashley: Yeah. so we did that a couple of times throughout the film. I think that's the only time that you actually see me ain the, in the space.
But, um, I don't know if you also remember when I went home with Janae to visit her family in South Carolina and her grandma kind of breaks the fourth wall by being like, are you, are you okay? Which she did a couple of times in that one scene that we didn't put in. Um, and I remember at points in the process, there was, because I include a small stuff like that, like people had kind of tried to push me to include myself as a subject in the film, which I went back and forth with a bit. and you know, ultimately like as a subject, I felt like it was just not my place, uh, because although, my process and my journey to making this film, I think is really unique in that, like I said, I was 22 when I started the film and I was like going through a lot of the same, like life processes of Janae and Bella. Um, but I do not claim all right. I definitely didn't claim at the time to be a community organizer. And, um, I was really just, I was learning a lot through the process about, you know, Chicago politics and the history of community organizing in Chicago. and I just felt like that's what I wanted the film to stay focused on.
But one thing that I do think is important for people to feel is the relationships that I had built with both today and Bella, um, and the intimacy that we were able to create, you know, by over the process of making the film for four, four and a half years. And so including that moment, um, where we go to the bathroom after her, after her exam, I think just kind of shows the strength of that relationship.
I don't know, I, I think people, um, are often surprised by how nimble our team is and how much we got done with like five people. Um, so it might be a little bit of a flex too, to just be like, yeah, it was literally just me, executing that scene and, you know, trying to think like a director while also filming it.
Uh, but it, it really, I think just hopefully depicts the folks, like the importance of relationship building with, uh, documentary film subjects. And like once, when you are able to build that trust like this, these are the types of conversations and, um, responses that you can get from them.
Larkin: Wow. Yeah. Yeah. It just reminded me so much of yeah. You being the director and helping this project and them being the organizers and helming their movement and project, like it just, the parallel I thought was really beautiful.
Ashley: And we also, it's funny that we're talking about it. Cause I, I think one of the arguments at one point was just like, these are like the point of me being a subject in the film, the point that people were pushing to get across, like these are conversations I could be having when the film is done. And I could talk about the process. I don't need to actually add this extra lift of me being in the film.
Jennifer: Yeah. Another question for you too. Um, Just like the timing of this film coming out. Like, unfortunately it's a very timely film, but also like at many points in history, it would be a timely film. and it, uh, but especially like, it just struck me after this election and the role that like black women played in the election. What are your thoughts on like this film being out in this, in this moment in time?
Morgan: For me, a part of it feels like almost divine alignment. I worked on this project about four years. And for Ashley, it was even longer because there was like, you know, it started off as a project she was doing like as an intern and it was a short film at some point and then grew into a feature length film, so there was like this very long process and, um, I don't think that you go into any project thinking, Oh, I'm going to dedicate years and years and years of my life to it. But that's kind of how it happened in a part of it is, accidental and structural because, some people, some studios can, can turn out a documentary in a year or two and that's because they have a lot of institutional funding and things like that and people who can come on and just get the work done. But when you're Ashley and you're doing the filming and coming on the back end and doing some of the editing and doing producing, I mean, it's going to take time. And sometimes it was working on this project just as we have the capacity to work on it.
And then also it, since it's verite, we're also following the lives of people and you can't really just dictate to when life is going to happen. So, uh, you know, following Jenae's journey and her long frustrating, and then reward we're rewarding, process takes time as well. And then, so I think there was a point where maybe we expected that this film would happen, would come out like a year ago or even two years ago or something like that. And it just, we couldn't get the fundraising. It couldn't happen. But then we entered this moment where we're in a pandemic and the film is finally ready and we're like, Oh my goodness, what do we do with this?
We don't get to have the premiere that we want to have. We don't get to present it in front of people or use it in, like in person settings, which is disappointing in a way, because this is a film about people coming together and organizing and, you know, sharing space with each other, so it really felt like a let down at first, but then we had to, you know, pivot, restructure, um, and think about like, how can we make the most out of this, on the engagement side.
And then on top of that, uh, the uprisings took place. And then of course that gives us film, like a whole new sense of timeliness and, uh, we're able to help facilitate and lead conversations around abolition, which it wasn't even a word that we were using to describe the film, like when we were, uh, creating language around the film, but we really got a chance to step into that narrative of like, these are abolitionists organizers, like Janae's work is coming through an abolitionists lens. Bella who's been impacted by the war on drugs, definitely has an abolition stance. And we started to create language around that and help people understand this moment that we're in and that's made the film even more powerful and timely, for this moment.
And it's been, it's been a. A great journey. I mean, we got accepted into a bunch of festivals and were able to fill, facilitate, you know, a lot of conversations and Q and A's and include Janae and Bella in those conversations. And, um, yeah, I think it's been a good thing as, as, I mean we've made the most of it, I think.
Ashley: Yeah. I always tell people that, um, I, I agree with Morgan, that a lot of this was just like divine timing and there's no way we could have anticipated, everything that was happening in the backdrop of America when we put this film out, um, but I also have told a lot of people that, you know, what you see in the film is a blueprint for what is happening now around the Movement for Black Lives. they were talking about defunding the police and reallocating police budgets in 2014, 2015 here in Chicago. So that when the mass uprising around Breonna Taylor and George Floyd was happening this summer, that was something that people were readily able to talk about and, you know, give directives about.
Um, and that's directly because of the work of many black women and black queer organizers in Chicago. So, um, I think that if I think, you know, that's not to say if it came out at 2019 or early 20, 20 wouldn't have had the same effect. But I do think now that we are in a global pandemic, people have time they're ready to invest in some sort of movement or allyship around the Movement for Black Lives, that it really carries a lot of weight. Um, and hopefully feels like a digestible way to understand, uh, this current movement.
Morgan: And I just want to add that another way that the language changed for us was a lot of times we would say this film is about the height of the Movement for Black Lives in Chicago. Oh yeah. We did say that.
The Laquan McDonald's uprisings, as you could feel in the film, I mean, it was just like palpable, like the rage that, and people took to the streets and it definitely was a major, major moment. And so to see this movement come back. I mean, I think it really, really shows, um, uh, the, how this movement has sustained multiple waves of uprisings, This has been eight years now since Trayvon Martin in 2012.
Um, so for anyone who may not know much about the Movement for Black Lives or may kind of distort the mission, um, I think this film is evidence that like, no, these organizers have been consistent and persistent in their efforts for, for now almost a decade. I mean, not, yeah. I'll say for now almost a decade.
Jennifer: Yeah. It's interesting hearing you speak about the, just kind of the, yeah. The evolution of language and how that. In the greater, you know, culture or just the greater society, people do have more access to that language, or it just has changed, um, in this last year. And so that's interesting to think about having to change or, you know, evolving the language, talking about the film as well.
Well, we end every interview with our three, two, one action segment. So you can answer in a word or phrase, it's like a lightning round. and we start with three, your favorite or most influential film?
Morgan: Don't laugh at me, but The Wiz.
Ashley: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind slash
Larkin: Number two, dream person you want to work with?
Ashley: Uh, Kira Kelly, she's the DP of like Queen Sugar, has done some Insecure episodes. She's a Black woman DP. She's a boss.
Morgan: Quincy Jones. If he's still kicking
Jennifer: One: best advice you've received.
Ashley: Trust the process.
Morgan: Like who likes you.
Larkin: And action: where can people follow each of you on social media?
Ashley: They could follow me at ashley.oshay or the you can follow Unapologetic at @unapologeticdoc on all platforms.
Sorry, but my other second piece of best advice is my other favorite one. Nothing is mandatory. Okay, so follow me, follow me at @Morganelisej on all platforms.
Larkin: Awesome. And where can people watch Unapologetic?
Ashley: They can work it at a number of virtual festivals. If yo go to Unapologetic film.com, black backslash events, all of the, all of our festival and screening information, we keep up to date there.
Larkin: Fantastic. Well, thank you both for joining us today. This was really fun.
Ashley: enjoy your day.