Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The film starts streaming on Hulu on Tuesday, July 19.
The statistics speak for themselves: According to the CDC, Black and Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women in this country. “Aftershock” is the result of tragedy, and the collaborative efforts of families who have endured the outcomes of systemic racial discrimination in reproductive health. The documentary from directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee simultaneously gives a wide-angle and close-up look at the dangers of giving birth while Black, from the ways women’s healthcare has been taken out of their hands over time, to how this trend has impacted individual families who undergo the devastating experience of losing their respective partner, child, or mother in the blink of an eye, all due to preventable complications and medical neglect.
Despite its heartbreaking subject matter, what emerges is not only a portrait of grief, though it captures this painful mourning process with care and sensitivity. “Aftershock” is a powerful project inspired by loss, one that aims to move us closer to a world where all women, and especially Black women, are listened to and given the birthing experiences they deserve, so that we can one day begin to see an end to the abysmal statistics on maternal mortality in the United States.
“You just gotta keep going,” Omari Maynard says. “One foot in front of the other.” He’s trying to pump up Bruce McIntyre as they run around Brooklyn’s Prospect Park loop. They’ve met up to connect over their shared experience of losing their partners during childbirth. Omari’s partner Shamony Gibson was ignored by her doctors after experiencing postpartum pain and died due to undetected blood clots 13 days after giving birth at the age of 30. Meanwhile, Bruce’s partner Amber Rose Isaac’s poor vitals were ignored during the later stages of her pregnancy, and she died during an emergency C-section at the age of 26. “Aftershock” begins as a study of what happened to these families, and how Shamony and Amber’s lives could have been saved if their health concerns were taken seriously.
Through a combination of poignant home videos and present-day tributes, the film celebrates these women, allowing us to see them as more than statistics. This is Omari and Bruce’s shared goal, along with Shamony’s mother Shawnee Benton Gibson: to keep their partners alive by turning their pain into action. By gathering with others who have experienced the same thing, as well as organizing protests and speaking out in both local and federal government hearings, these three show the power of having their voices heard. The word “unspeakable” might be used to describe the tragedy these men and their families experience, but their refusal to stay silent is what drives them to make a change. And indeed, it’s a subject matter that many might shy away from due to its devastating nature. But “Aftershock” is a necessary watch, one that ends up being surprisingly optimistic in its portrayal of empowerment and perseverance, and those who believe that reproductive justice is attainable for all.
The film’s message is bolstered by several fascinating medical professionals doing advocacy work in this area, who serve the dual purpose of illuminating the history of reproductive injustice and illustrating the right ways to support women during childbirth as we watch them work in real-time. What could have become talking-head interviews are instead made into dynamic case studies in successful methods of reproductive health. In one revealing sequence, Helen Grant, CNM, the director of Midwifery at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn, goes over the history of reproductive health, which was once in the hands of women and their midwives alone. Over time, patriarchal powers of church and state sought to take back this power, controlling the means of childbirth and abortion. Black women, she explains, were often used as “guinea pigs,” as the male-dominated fields of obstetrics and gynecology developed, and misguided ideas about their ability to withstand pain better than white women emerged. Today, Black women continue to be ignored when they speak up about pain, especially when it’s related to pregnancy.
While these ugly truths about the history of reproductive health are discouraging, the filmmakers also focus on Felicia Ellis, an expectant Black mother in Tulsa, Oklahoma, whose story gives room for hope. She’s aware of the risks she faces: “A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police,” she says. As they detail her birth journey in a state with one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the country, we watch as she and her husband decide whether to give birth in a hospital or a birthing center, a sort of middle ground between a home and hospital birth. She chooses the latter and successfully gives birth without intervention or a C-section. Her story helps to show how natural and beautiful birthing can be. It’s an encouraging component of “Aftershock,” a film that turns unthinkable loss into a life-affirming project.
“Aftershock” world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
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