“Aftershock” is an emotional gut punch and hopefully a wake-up call to the medical community, the religious wing-nuts, and their power-hungry politicians’ striping women of the full range of reproductive health care options. If nothing else, the fact that this film exists will save lives.
I’m not gonna lie; I spent a large portion of it in tears, grateful to be in a dark theater.
Directors Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee’s new documentary looks at black maternal mortality in America through the eyes of two new fathers who lost their partners due to complications related to the birth of their children.
Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that; they didn’t just die from some unavoidable complications, some act of G’d. They died because their doctors ignored their concerns, viewing them through the lens of racial and class stereotypes until it was too late to save them. A common complaint from black, brown, and indigenous patients across the medical field; call it medical racism.
The U.S. has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the industrialized world, primarily due to the mortality rate for black women, who die at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts. The mortality rate for black women is 55.3 per hundred thousand live births compared to 19.1 for white women.
These numbers only get worse the older the women get. For black women 40 and over, the death per live birth shoot up to 107.9 per 100,000 live births. With the recent Dobbs decision, the maternal mortality rate will only grow, and black women and families will bear the brunt of this horror.
The movie opens with a look into the everyday life of Shamony Gibson, augmented by her mom Shawnee’s remembrances of little details about her daughter’s life that bring home the fact that Shamony was a real person who lived, loved, and was loved.
The directors are very intentional in how they seek to put a sense of humanity to the numbers, filling our hearts and minds with the human lives behind the data in a way that makes them more visceral.
Aftershock isn’t just trauma porn, though. While dealing with Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre’s struggle to cope with the loss of their partner, they also let us in on their growth into their new life role as fathers and the joys and hopes that come with it. It provides a glimpse into the resilience of the black family, the communities built in the wake of loss, and the strength to make meaningful change in the world.
Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre’s relationship with their children is another nail in the coffin of the deadbeat dad myth that has plagued all of us, but predominantly black and brown men since perhaps the 60s if not deeper into the 20th century. They are vulnerable, loving, even dotting; like all of us parents, they don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground, but they’re giving it their all.
Through every step in their journey, I can see myself in them. I can imagine how it would feel to lose my wife and have to raise our son without her, and the thought terrifies me because I can feel their doubt, their pain, and their need to put on a brave face for their kiddos every day, even when they don’t feel like they have it in them.
An aspect of their story that hasn’t received much attention is the treatment of these two dads during the birthing process. The way healthcare professionals involved dismissed, minimized, or outright disregarded them as if they had no right to be there or were a hindrance.
I connected deeply to this because I remember the doctors and nurses treating me the same way. They treated all of the dads at the hospital like this, referring to us as “the baby daddy” as if we were nothing more than sperm donors, as opposed to full partners. We then had to prove our relationship to our child as if our word, the word of our partners, and our commitment weren’t good enough.
What Aftershock does that other stories on maternal mortality haven’t done is explain how we got into this crisis in the first place and make the connection to colonialism, sexism, and ultimately racism.
It also goes out of its way to show us that there are other options for birthing people and that it’s okay if hospitals aren’t your thing. Families can make a choice more suited to their needs and expectations, a less expensive and increasingly safer choice.
In this film, the lives impacted by maternal mortality, medical racism, and their activism are a memorial to those who have died in this slow-rolling genocide. No mother should have to die due to complications in childbirth because those tasked with their care ignored or minimized their concerns. No family should begin with an avoidable trauma, especially in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
ED NOTE: This review is a follow-up to Cory Clark’s recap from the Blackstar Film Festival, you can read here.