Every element of Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s documentary, “Aftershock,” packs a mighty punch. The narrative arc, the visuals, the information — all of these make it worth multiple viewings. “Aftershock,” screening on Wednesday, July 20, at 7 pm at the Grange Hall, is chiefly an exposé about Black maternal morbidity in the U.S., but its full story is broader and deeper, and includes the timeless presence of midwives, the historical outrages against Black female bodies, and the importance of grassroots community action to rise up against mistreatment. All of it is told with breathtaking intimacy, clarity, and righteousness. Eiselt and Lee keep the viewer engaged in the personal stories of two bereaved families while also educating us about the American maternity industrial complex.
Structurally, the film is an intimate story of tragedy, with hope for redemption. Within six months of each other, two young Black women in New York City died of complications from pregnancy/childbirth; their bereaved partners and mothers joined forces to raise awareness and demand changes to a medical system that devalues Black female bodies. Two filmmakers happened to encounter these families, and each other, at the beginning of their bereavement and activism. This confluence of energies means everyone involved in the making of the film is personally invested in getting the message out, forcefully and clearly.
The previous paragraph reflects the anonymity with which most Black female bodies have been treated by the American medical industry throughout history. One of the documentary’s many strengths is how embodied and present Shamany Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac become for us while watching. They and their families are not statistics or case studies: We come to know Gibson’s partner, Omari Maynard, mother Shawnee Benton-Gibson, sister Jasmine, young daughter Inari, and newborn Cari; and Isaac’s partner Bruce McIntyre, mother Renita Isaac, and newborn Elias. This is, ultimately, a story about the living — what they need and deserve, and how best to help them achieve it.
Throughout the film there is a gorgeous interplay of personal videos taken by the families and Eiselt and Lee’s professional filming. A particularly moving moment begins with a self-recorded video of Maynard playfully dabbing make-up onto pregnant Gibson’s forehead, then cuts to Eiselt and Lee’s footage of Maynard painting a portrait of deceased Gibson, just as he is dabbing paint onto her forehead on the canvas. In another effective home-video touch, Maynard’s smartphone has been set up to record passages of his day in his small apartment with his children. A bowl of salad sits almost offscreen at the bottom of the first shot — and remains there, untouched, as the day unfolds and Maynard attends to everything except his own well-being. This is a painfully apt metaphor for an element that Tonya Lewis Lee most wants the audience to recognize: “To be clear, this is not a woman’s issue, this is a family’s issue, it’s a community issue,” she told the Times in an interview last week. “So often, reproductive justice is framed through the lens of a woman’s experience, but as the film shows, it is the men who get left behind.”
Gibson’s partner Maynard reached out to Isaac’s partner McIntyre, and then each of them, and their partners’ mothers, continued to reach out to others, especially other bereaved Black men. The support groups and social justice work born of these efforts is both heartbreaking and uplifting to witness. McIntyre in particular has found his inner activist, and is helping to create a birthing center in the Bronx. It will be only the fourth birthing center in New York State, which has a population of 19 million. “Black women are four times more likely to die than their white counterparts with the same symptoms. The mortality rate in the U.S. has doubled. It was safer for our parents to have children than it is for us today. Why is that?” he asks.
Meanwhile, filmmakers Eiselt and Lee interviewed Dr. Neel Shah, an OB/GYN professor at Harvard Medical School, who was working with the Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative to bring doulas to pregnant women in Tulsa. Oklahoma has a maternal mortality rate double the national average, but the initiative is promoting the development of woman-oriented birth centers. Thanks to Dr. Shah, Eiselt and Lee were introduced to Felicia Ells and her husband, who are skirting the traditional maternity options in favor of the Breathe Birth Center in Tulsa. “A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police,” says Ells, as she makes this decision. “You have to really pay attention to what’s going on every step of the way.” Tracking Ells’ experience is a soothing, hopeful counterpoint to Gibson and Isaac’s stories.
Woven into the personal stories and the statistics about the current situation, there are also dives into history: the unspeakably horrific treatment of Black women’s bodies in the antebellum South, and the importance of midwives throughout all of human history, except for in the U.S. The U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality of all industrialized nations — and only 6 percent of births involve a midwife, very few of whom are people of color.
At this historical moment, when a woman’s bodily autonomy is under siege in the U.S., “Aftershock” is especially gripping and relevant.
“Aftershock” screens on Wednesday, July 20, at 7 pm at the Grange Hall, part of the MVFF/Circuit Arts Summer Film Series. The film will be followed by a discussion with directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt.