A mother’s grief, a partner’s shattered heart, and a community experiencing the uncontrolled convulsions and ripples that always happen when a woman dies a preventable death while giving birth.
Black mothers in the United States are three to four times more likely to die during childbirth than white women. It is one of the most glaring disparities in women’s health and it is the primary reason the United States ranks at the very bottom of every other developed country in maternal health care. What’s worse is that preventable deaths of Black women giving birth are trending upward. A new documentary explores this phenomenon.
“Aftershock,” a Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary produced and directed by Paula Eisner and Tonya Lewis Lee, follows the lives of two families as they reckon with the heart-wrenching and preventable deaths of Shamony Makeba Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac during and just after childbirth.
Three months after Shamony’s death, her mother, Shawnee Benson-Gibson, gathers with her community to celebrate Shamony’s birthday. Shawnee is a bold thread throughout the film, bringing people together, sharing what happened to Shamony and speaking out against reproductive injustice at rallies, community centers, and ultimately, before Congress.
The story centers on the relationship between the two single fathers. In grief and solidarity, Shamony’s partner Omari Maynard – who finds solace in creating artworks of his beloved – reaches out to Bruce McIntyre, Amber Rose’s partner. The two men, now raising their babies as single fathers, forge a friendship rooted in a deep acknowledgment of their shared anguish and anger, and their steadfast determination to fight for justice for their partners and to lower the incidence of maternal mortality in their communities.
The two fathers connect with other Black men who have lost partners during childbirth. We see how pervasive the loss really is. Omari and Bruce develop a cross-country network of grieving partners and families, birth justice activists, midwives and doulas, and influential medical insiders and elected officials.
“Aftershock” features a third family and their very different birthing experience. The story takes us to America’s heartland, Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the Black maternal death rate is twice as high as the national average. There we meet Felicia and Paul Ellis who have chosen to deliver their baby girl in a birthing center with midwives and a doula. It is a long scene, empowering, graphic and beautiful, as we see Felicia labor as she chooses – on a walk, squatting, nibbling strawberries, in a tub of warm water. She sighs, moans, and blows determined breath through pursed lips as her baby slips peacefully into the world. “Aftershock” highlights the much-needed discussion around choice in the method of childbirth and options that are overlooked that may reduce rates of maternal mortality in Black communities.
The film reveals the dark origins of the current medical obstetrics model, developed during slavery as Dr. Marion Sims, the “Father of Gynecology,” performed experimental surgeries on enslaved women. Not bothering to consider anesthesia, Sims claimed that the women felt no pain, an assertion that still impacts the way Black people are medically treated today. His purpose was to “fix” the enslaved women so that they could keep bearing children for their masters. The enslaved women had absolutely no say in the matter.
Soon after the Civil War, medical men, along with the nurses trained to obey them, determined that childbirth could be a lucrative revenue source. They could both make money and control women’s reproductive process if they co-opted this traditionally women-dominated area of expertise as their own. Midwives, who had a long tradition of helping women in all stages of development and healing, were hunted and prosecuted as the birth process was medicalized. The result is an almost irresistible urge to interfere rather than let a natural birth unfold. The cost of performing a C-section is less than a vaginal birth, pays 50%more, and it’s more convenient for the doctor.
“Aftershock,” released nearly concurrent with the Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe v. Wade, widens the lens to include the issue of overall reproductive justice. Paula Eisner and Tonya Lewis Lee talked about the making of the film. “You know there really is an attack on women and it’s not just abortion rights,” said Lewis Lee, a longtime activist, filmmaker and wife of filmmaker Spike Lee. “It’s also birthing rights and birthing choices and options, this is all part of one conversation… We have to care about our women. And that’s how we care for our families and that’s how we care about our communities.” It’s not just about us; inevitably whatever health benefits we reap, others will as well.
Black women are still not being listened to, and that is at the very root of the problem. And that root digs deep into a long history of racism. “Aftershock” takes us from how both Shamony and Amber Rose were ignored when they told their medical team something was wrong and how they died as a result, to how change is churning a groundswell.
Through masterful storytelling and artful cinematography, “Aftershock” adds an important voice to the demand for change in the way Black women are treated by the medical establishment. By examining Black maternal mortality at the intersection of personal grief, community and political activism, race, class, geography, misogyny and malpractice, the documentary makes clear that the problem is systemic and utterly intertwined with a long history of violence against Black bodies.
“Aftershock” is an inspiring true story that explores the ways individuals and communities can empower their families’ health. Importantly, it spotlights sensitive and strong Black men who defy the stereotypes of absent, nonproductive fathers.
The film pulls your emotions into deep places that can inspire meaningful change. It is vital viewing for anyone with a connection to a Black mama or a care for the community.
Watch this film, and get others to watch it too.