Black Maternal Health Week takes place in April, but the topic of Black Maternal Health should be discussed every day. Over the years, more and more cases of Black women with horrifying birth experiences have been coming to the forefront. The statistics are through the roof. The CDC shows that Black women are 3x more likely to die during childbirth than white women.
During childbirth, Black women are experiencing more severe complications and are also prone to C-sections than their White counterparts, sometimes in cases that are not necessary.
These circumstances leave Black women traumatized and deeply affect their mental health. Black women feel unheard and overlooked by medical professionals. Symptoms are ignored and dismissed because of their race. And in Netflix’s newest short film Weathering, the aftermath of such traumatic events is explored.
Released on April 14 on the streaming service, short film follows a grieving young Black Journalist named Gimena, who deals with the effects of a traumatic childbirth. After her birth, her mental health is tested.
The short film stars Alfie Woodard, Alexis Louder and Jermaine Fowler. Recently Shadow and Act spoke with writer and director Megalyn Echikunwoke about the Black Maternal Crisis and how this film may bring awareness to the topic.
For this to be your directorial debut with this type of subject matter, how important and pivotal is this moment for you?
ME: I just feel so lucky. It’s really important. It’s really pivotal. And at the end of the day, I’m a storyteller. All of us are. It doesn’t matter what specific thing we do in the industry – whether you’re a director, if you’re a writer, if you’re an actor, or if you’re your set decorator. We are all storytellers and at the end of the day, if we get an opportunity to tell a story like this and to pull it off in a way that is impactful, it’s just such a huge opportunity and I feel like it has very little to do with me and more to do the story that we’re telling and the people were telling a story about.
How did the opportunity to direct this specific project come about? Were you involved from the beginning or were you approached later on?
ME: I actually wrote it. And It was my first time. I’ve written before, but it was my first time being able to create something that I wrote.
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Obviously, it's Black Maternal Health Week, and obviously, the subject matter is very hot right now. I feel like there's been this large movement speaking of Black maternal health overall in the past few years. Where did the inspiration come from for this specific project?
ME: I was it was the middle of the pandemic and I was doing some research and I stumbled upon these incredible and scary, horrifying stories about the experiences that some Black women have had giving birth in this country. And I was horrified. And I was shocked. First, I was ashamed that I didn’t know about it. And second, I was shocked that it was happening. I was in the middle of trying to tell a story about a woman, a Black woman, struggling with her mental health. I started to learn more about Black maternal health in the United States. And I just felt like it was an obvious and intriguing way to get into the story about a Black woman’s psyche in the United States, the type of stuff that that we deal with. And I just thought, ‘Wow, what a better way to tell a story than through with this entryway, entering it through this story.’
I was immediately so interested in the collateral damage of some of the stories that I had read. For instance, Gimena, her stillbirth story – I just lifted that from the pages of a story that I read. That first 5 minutes, all that stuff has really happened to someone. And if I’m being honest, the first thing that that I was struck by was Serena Williams’ birth story. That was really my entry point into this subject matter.
I read about her birth story and I was so shocked and so confused. And I started to dig further, and then I started to uncover all of these other stories. I wanted to talk about it. I felt the need to talk about it. And I thought, ‘Well, no one understands the Black or the Black female experience in the United States more than a mother who tried to give birth in the United States.’ And the s**t has gone wrong. Really, really wrong. And it should not have. There’s no reason for it.
There's a huge discussion right now that's been ongoing in the past few years about Black maternal health overall. And I was really struck by the way that you chose to tell the story from this lens versus the typical long-form documentary style or docuseries style. What was the motivation behind your choice to tell the story in this way?
ME: I would say for me as a storyteller and as a filmmaker, I wanted to make something that was really compelling and I wanted to make something that gave us insight into a reality that is maybe other. So, I didn’t want to tell a literal linear story because so much of our lives, the world, the lives that we live in, our minds are not linear and they’re not literal. And for a Black woman struggling with the trauma of her stillbirth in a hospital, and then also probably the compounding of the trauma that she’s already had to deal with before that. I just figured she was not living in a mirror. She may not even be that lucid. She might not be living in the reality she doesn’t see herself as. She should see herself. Because there’s just so much clouding of the beauty, of that image. And I wanted to take people on a journey to that, if that makes sense.
We see all this crazy shit that’s going on with the compounding of the stress, the weathering that’s happening. How hard it is for her to get to where she got. She did it by herself, which, you know, a lot of Black women do. We are kind of on our own out here sometimes. And being super strong. Yeah, it’s cool that we can do that, but that’s not the thing all the time. We need softness, we need support, we need understanding. We need people to listen to us. So that was what I was interested in. And to me, that’s not a story that’s rooted necessarily in a documentary form. And then also the fact that I’m super curious about the horror genre. I find that a really, really powerful way to tell a story like this. And I never thought I’d find myself here, but I love it and I can’t wait to do it again.
There was also something that struck me in the dialog in the film between the mother and daughter. When her mother comes to visit her and she says something like ‘This is why I had you at home with my midwife.’ And there's a ton of discussion right now about hospital births versus at-home births or birth centers with midwives or doctors, specifically to avoid potentially having induced labor. So why did you feel the need to put to throw that part in there?
ME: I wanted to tell a story about a different time when midwifery, and Black midwifery specifically was more common. And having a doula and how that was the thing that would keep women safer during maternity and throughout their delivery. That’s a safety net. That’s a support net. And in modern times, and especially with the lack of education about our bodies and how they work, and how to protect ourselves. I feel like there’s really a lot. And I think that with more education and reintegrating the idea of midwifery and the idea of having a doula, especially if you’re Black, is a way to keep you safer. And make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people who are listening to you, who are supporting you, who are not undermining your maternity because they don’t know any better and they don’t care is the way to ensure a healthy birth and healthy maternity.
With regard to Alfre Woodard’s mother character, I think there is that element where she’s like, ‘I did this the right way and I tried to tell you. But I’m a strong Black woman. And there’s no time for us to not be strong, we have to keep surviving. So you’re fine. You’re fine. You’re going to be okay. There’s no room for lamenting. There’s no room for grieving. We have to keep moving forward because it’s too painful.’ So I wanted to portray a character like that. But because this is a 20-minute film, it’s like every line of dialog was very important. Every single word, I lamented over, I thought about it, and every single word was intentional and deliberate.
So even with that one line, I just wanted to see the idea of ‘What if we really lean into that side?’ Because in the past, of course, the past has its issues. But there are some things that were working really well. And especially with women’s health and particularly with Black women’s health, I think there’s a lot of room for education and a lot of room for other support systems like midwifery. So that’s a very it was a very long-winded answer to your question.
The film also follows the lead character who is kind of like gaslit, and they're trying to silence her for speaking out. And then on the other hand, what's going on now is that, as I mentioned, there's this movement of women sharing these stories. Do you feel like these stories are buried or do you feel as if they are more available nowadays?
ME: I didn’t know these stories initially. I had to get an education on the subject. I didn’t know about it, which is why I was so inspired to tell the story. I was like, so shocked. Especially by Serena Williams’ story. I was like, ‘What the f**k?’ And then I started reading all these other stories that I didn’t really see really happening. I honestly felt rage. I was so pissed off. When I was telling people during the development of this project, no one knew these stories. I would tell them the statistics, and I would tell them about the data. No one knew.
What’s so interesting is that, like now between the time when I started writing this and now, there’s so much more information about it and it is becoming a hot-button issue, which is amazing. That’s God telling me that we need to talk about this. And more people are talking about this. It’s not just me. And what’s even more serendipitous is that during the filming, there were like articles coming out, like front-page articles in The New York Times talking about this stuff. While we were shooting one day, this was only a five-day shoot. And I think one of the days was this was an issue on the front page of The New York Times. And then subsequently, while I was in post and honestly, just about two weeks ago, it was a really big issue, a really big news issue. And people are writing about it and people are talking about it.
So I feel like the stories, they were buried, but now we’re talking about it. And hopefully, this film is a part of the conversation and it’s more of a dynamic conversation than just Black maternal health. Because mental health is a part of maternal health. And Black people deserve the spectrum of health care. And we deserve people to understand and know this. All of us. Every part of us. And if this project has anything to do with promoting a conversation or cultivating a conversation around mental health, maternal health, all of Black people’s health. I’m so excited. I feel so lucky to be a part of the conversation. In a positive way.
How do you go about casting?
ME: Casting was in my mind. I had people that I wanted and I told myself, ‘I’m just going to go for it.’ Because we’re all storytellers. If you have a really good story, people want to be a part of a great project. So I was asking all kinds of people, the people that I thought were way beyond this. I’d say, ‘So and so do you want to do this tiny short film? You’re really famous and you probably haven’t done a short film since you were in high school.’ I was just asking because I thought, ‘You know what? What do I have to lose?’ And with Alfre Woodard, she played my mom in a movie that I did when I first started, when I was in the beginning of my career, when I was 17 years old, she played my mom in this movie. And I’ve known her for years and we have never collaborated since then, but I’ve always been dying to. And I had all these I have like a list of women that I wanted to ask. And of course, this is something that I wanted to ask you to audition for. I know so many talented people and I just thought that if I can get a group of talented people to say yes, I know I can make something great. And I was really nervous, but I was like, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I’m just going to ask Alfre.’ I wrote her a letter and sent her the script and she was like, ‘Yes.’ And I couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, ‘Really, you trust me?’ She’s like, ‘I trust you and you can do it.’ And I just felt so lucky. And that was sort of the experience I had throughout. It was special. I just feel so grateful that people signed up and trusted me and went on this journey with me, honestly.
How do you feel as if this film expands upon the conversation of Black maternal health?
ME: Well, what I hope is that this conversation forces people or inspires people to look a little further, to look a little bit deeper, and if there are people within the medical health industry who do not humanize Black women the way they should be and who do not fully humanize Black women, especially when they’re in their most vulnerable state, as in maternity. I hope that this inspires them to learn more and educate themselves more, and to understand Black women’s humanity more. That’s really what I think. That’s really the thing that I hope this film adds to the conversation. It’s not about data, it’s not about statistics about human beings. It’s about our lives and what happens. What happens when you’re marginalized, when you’re disregarded, when no one listens to you, and what that does to your psyche, what that does to your body. Because that’s what Weathering is. It’s the physical manifestation of stress in your body. The compounding of stress over time. It weathers your body and actually ages you and Black people experience it at levels that are exponentially greater.
And especially Black women during maternity. I hope that the larger conversation is more humanizing. It’s not about it’s not about numbers. It’s not about data. It’s about human beings. It’s about Black women who are humans, who are vulnerable, and who are giving birth in a first-world country that has nothing to do with socioeconomics, has nothing to do with anything. They need to be listened to. And they need to be supported. And they need to not die when they get. It needs to not be so dangerous. Not just for their infants, but for themselves. And even if they’re not dying, giving birth, the trauma, giving birth shouldn’t be so traumatic specifically for Black women. Of course, there are complications or the risk of complications when anyone gives birth. But it shouldn’t be that dire for Black women. It’s not OK.