'Aftershock' Filmmakers On Exposing the Grim Reality Of Black Maternal Mortality In Acclaimed Sundance Pic
Photo Credit: Onyx Collective
Festivals , Film , Interviews

'Aftershock' Filmmakers On Exposing the Grim Reality Of Black Maternal Mortality In Acclaimed Sundance Pic

Shamony Gibson was excited to welcome her second child into the world. Her birth was easy, but after leaving the hospital, she began experiencing debilitating symptoms, primarily shortness of breath. Her longtime partner Omari Maynard notified her physician and was told that she simply needed rest. But the symptoms persisted and became worse, despite Omari and her mother trying their best to care for her. By day 13 of experiencing the same thing, she insisted she be taken to a hospital. Maynard heard Gibson’s mother scream for his help in agony as he packed a hospital bag to transport her to the hospital. He found Shamony passed out on the floor. 

The ambulance arrived and paramedics immediately began a fire round of questioning, the primary question being whether or not Gibson was a drug user. On the way to the hospital, it was discovered that she had a pulmonary embolism – translation: a blood clot. But the clot was so large that the only thing doctors could do was put her on medication in hopes the clot would thin and eventually burst. Within hours, she was dead. It was just four months before her 31st birthday.

Amber Rose Issac was thrilled to be having her first child. Unlike Gibson, her pregnancy was riddled with complications from nearly the beginning. She was tired much of the time. Pregnant during the pandemic, her in-person visits turned to virtual ones. Turned off by the traditional medical system, she sought the help of a doula or midwife, who instructed her to get her medical records and send them over to her. The first thing her midwife noticed was that Isaac’s platelet levels – which help blood clot – were dropping. It was a red flag. Upon getting updated bloodwork, she was diagnosed with HELLP syndrome — a group of symptoms considered a variant of preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication involving high blood pressure and organ damage. 

Isaac was deemed too high-risk to have an at-home birth, despite her desire to do so due to mistrust of the hospital. After learning her platelet counts were still falling, she was immediately taken in for a C-section, a month before her due date. Her partner Bruce McIntyre III and her mother were unable to accompany her in the operating room due to COVID procedures, so she went in alone. Within minutes, she was dead, never having the chance to hold her newborn son, with McIntyre noting she essentially bled out. Doctors told him Isaac’s blood was “like water” and wouldn’t cloy. Isaac died in the same hospital where her mother worked for 25 years. After Issac’s death, the hospital sent out an email of one sentence to share their condolences to the staff. Four days before Isaac’s death, she Tweeted that she would write an expose’ on dealing with an incompetent medical staff throughout her pregnancy. McIntyre raises their son with the help of Isaac’s mother. Isaac was 26-years-old.

Both Gibson and Isaac’s stories serve as the central focus of Aftershock, a documentary exposing the disproportionate deaths of Black women during and post-childbirth. The film is directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee and recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. 

The irony of this story is that both women chronicled their lives via extensive photo and video footage that is immersed throughout the documentary. The filmmakers continue to tell their stories after their tragic passing through the same medium. Eiselt and Lewis Lee have a poignant viewpoint on how the footage helps aid in their storytelling.

Eislet saw the footage as a way to allow the audience to connect with the expectant mothers on a deeper level. “The biggest of all that documentation and archival footage was a treasure trove and when we realized what these families had documented was just a tremendous gift, especially Shamony because she comes from a family of creatives who’ve practically documented their entire lives,” she said. “The footage of both women brings these women to life in real-time in the film and has people get to meet them and see what kind of personalities they have.”

Lewis Lee believes the footage serves as a direct argument against the unfair stereotypes centered around Black maternal health. “Articles have come out about Black women dying from childbirth complications and often the narrative has been that these women have died because they’re obese, they are not healthy, they don’t take care of themselves. You kind of feel like they’re in the world by themselves having these babies somehow on their own with no support from a partner or a family or a community,” Lewis Lee explained. “The footage that both women created and the footage that we were able to create in partnership with them, I think really demonstrates that that narrative is not the truth that unfortunately, a lot of these women are very healthy. They’re very conscious of trying to take great care of their health. They do go to prenatal appointments. But it really is a systemic problem of how they are treated. And so that footage allowed us to show that they are human beings behind this data and the statistics that people talk about.”

With so much education surrounding the statistics of Black maternal mortality in the U.S., pregnant women are opting to forgo hospitals altogether. In its place, they seek out birth centers with the assistance of a midwife and/or a doula. Though all families cannot afford such options due to insurance not typically covering it, the outcomes are proven to be better for Black women. Still, many are unaware of the role each serves in the birthing process. Eislet says both a midwife and a doula are a great help and offered a breakdown of their skill set for those who haven’t grasped what each does.

“A doula is a support person and that person is really there to support the mom in terms of helping them cope with pain and just being there physically to offer emotional support and different comfort measures. There is training involved to become a doula, but anyone can take that route. Doulas are known to take on the role of being an advocate because doulas also act as advocates in the hospital space,” she explained. “A midwife is a medical provider and an expert provider in pregnancy, bith, and postpartum. To be a midwife, you have to be certified. You have to go through rigorous schooling. They are not as much about emotionally supporting the woman, although that does happen, but to ensure a healthy and safe birth. They know everything that a physician knows. The only thing that a midwife can’t do, that a physician can do, is surgery. But midwives are experts in natural birth.”

While these options are available, it doesn’t remove the pain that the families of Gibson and Isaac are left to grapple with. The film does a phenomenal job of educating viewers on how implicit racism is the primary contributing factor to such deaths and negligent prenatal care for women of color. A historical picture is painted of how natural births eventually transitioned to hospitals, the disproportionate number of Black healthcare workers and providers, and C-sections have risen in astronomical numbers due to the costs and time associated with them, and so much more. 

Throughout the film, McIntyre and Maynard form an immediate bond and work to help other men of color in their positions grieve. In the process, they create a community of support for one another and their growing children, while pushing for change in the healthcare system. By the end of the film, the first birthing center in the Bronx, where Isaac died, is in the process of opening – and legislative changes for Black expectant mothers are in effect.

Aftershock premiered at the Sundance Film Festival

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