It’s impossible not to feel impassioned by Aftershock, the vital documentary co-directed by Paula Eiselt (93Queen) and Tonya Lewis Lee that explores the dismal state of the U.S.’s maternal mortality rate among Black women. Though the statistics alone are infuriating—namely the U.S. having the highest maternal mortality rate among all industrialized nations—Aftershock platforms the stories of families who have lost a loved one due to this oft-overlooked healthcare crisis. In fact, the film aptly suggests that this issue hasn’t sparked nationwide outrage because the maternal death rate for Black women is more than twice as high as it is for white women.
The film begins with a compilation of home videos chronicling the everyday life of Shamony Gibson, a 30-year-old Brooklyn woman. “I just wanted to illustrate how over-the-top my daughter is in every aspect of her life,” her mother Shawnee Benton Gibson tells the camera, holding up a black toothbrush in each hand. She unsheathes one of the toothbrushes, revealing bristles warped beyond recognition by vigorous brushing. “She brushes her teeth like the teeth did something to her!”
Shamony’s infectious giggle can be heard in the background, amused by her mother’s affectionate teasing. However, it’s revealed that Shamony’s boisterous nature has been recently snuffed out due to a totally preventable tragedy. These recordings have been compiled to play during a memorial service for the young mother, who died of a brain aneurysm 13 days after the birth of her second child in October 2019. Her partner Omari Maynard has been left to raise their young daughter and newborn son on his own—and both Omar and Shawnee are positive that glaring medical negligence led to Shamony’s untimely death.
Rather than begin with a rudimentary run-down of the issue, Aftershock emphasizes the filmmakers’ commitment to the human faces behind this epidemic. Seeing Shamony through her family’s eyes—her vibrant personality, her doting love for her first-born, her obvious adoration for her partner—serves an emotional gut-punch that numbers alone could never conjure. While viewers may have expected a sobering, somber account of Black maternal mortality, the visceral impact of the human lives lost is the very first takeaway the directors impart on the audience.
It’s an impressive feat to have hot tears streaming down viewers’ cheeks within the 10-minute mark, and even more impressive for the filmmakers to effectively channel that sadness into usable fervor. In this sense, the emotional journey of the viewer mimics that of the documentary’s subjects. Six months after Shamony’s passing, Omari hears of the death of 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac, a fellow New Yorker who died after an emergency C-section. Omari reaches out to Bruce McIntyre, Amber’s partner, knowing full-well that there is a dearth of resources for bereaved partners in the aftermath of a maternal death. Meeting Bruce for a run in Prospect Park, Omari grants sage advice to his companion in grief: “There’s other people in our position. We can turn our pain into power and make something of this.”
After a cathartic sprint through the park, it appears that Omari’s words have truly catapulted Bruce into action. He begins to lay the groundwork for activism that eventually leads to him pushing for the Bronx’s birthing center, an alternative to hospitals that focuses on providing pregnant people as much time as they need to give birth vaginally in a setting that’s far less cold and clinical than a maternity ward. We see how safe, effective and beautiful a birth in this environment can be through Felicia and Paul Ellis. A couple from Tulsa, Oklahoma (home to the highest Black maternal mortality rate in the country), they opt for a birthing center in the face of their hometown’s dire statistics. “A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police,” Felicia wearily notes.
After a consultation and tour of the facility, the couple is sold—particularly when the employee gives them a price estimate for the entire stay, which would be a mere $3,000. Though by no means “affordable,” that price tag is peanuts compared to the average cost of giving birth in a hospital: Vaginal births range from $5,000 to $11,000, while C-sections cost between $7,500 and $14,000.
While the cost is higher for patients that undergo C-sections, Aftershock also makes a startling connection between the increased practice of cesarean births and the money these surgeries save hospitals. Neel Shah, a professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Harvard School of Medicine and fierce advocate for curbing the Black maternal mortality rate, gives a startling breakdown as to why hospitals increasingly perform C-sections. In short, you can perform a C-section in under an hour, while giving birth vaginally can be an unpredictable timetable. The longer a patient fills a bed, the longer until the hospital can put the next body in it, giving them fewer total invoices to send out. It becomes clear that most hospitals aren’t actually prioritizing patient care and comfort, but rather their own financial incentives. Risking lives via unnecessary C-sections proves more profitable than allotting the time and resources for a natural vaginal birth.
What also elevates Aftershock to a truly enlightening realm is its crash-course on the history of gynecology in the U.S., which is (unsurprisingly) rooted in slavery. Helena Grant, Director of Midwifery at Brooklyn’s Woodhull Medical Center, gives a stirring and damning account of J. Marion Sims, America’s so-called “father of gynecology.” Sims experimented extensively on enslaved Black women, intent on remedying gynecological issues so that these women could birth more enslaved children for plantations. His learnings from these cruel, crude surgeries serves as the enduring backbone for current gynecological practices. Aftershock expands upon our nation’s insidious past to describe our disastrous present: “Black women by and large continue to be cared for by learners,” Grant says. “It’s the marrying of the over-medicalization with inexperience that’s really the foundation of maternal mortality and morbidity.”
In exposing the horrifying reality of giving birth while Black—and providing tangible alternatives for increasingly dangerous hospital births—Aftershock might very well save lives. Most importantly, the film immortalizes two mothers whose deaths never should have occurred, giving space for the innumerable victims of this crisis to similarly take action and memorialize those they’ve lost to senseless medical racism. “I planned on spending a lifetime with Amber,” Bruce tearfully recounts during a 2020 march in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to give her my life. [Through my activism] I’m still going to.”
Directors: Paula Eiselt, Tonya Lewis Lee
Release Date: July 19, 2022 (Hulu)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan