‘Aftershock’ Documentary Aims To Stop The Black Maternal

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Aftershock examines the maternal health crisis now facing women in the United States. Co-directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt explore the systemic reasons why Black and Brown women are more than three times more likely to die during childbirth. They intimately follow the stories of women whose deaths during delivery and postpartum were preventable. Aftershock sheds light on the history of neglect and abuse towards women of color in America due to structural racism. It also illustrates how the victims’ families, birth workers, activists and doctors are working to improve maternal care in the United States through legislation and changes to the medical system. Aftershock was awarded the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact for Change at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

In October of 2019, Shamony Gibson died when her complaints after the birth of her son were ignored by medical providers. Two months after her death, Lee and Eiselt began documenting the journey of Shamony’s mother, Shawnee Benton Gibson, and her Shamony’s partner, Omari Maynard. The following year, 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac died during an emergency c-section due to complications stemming from medical neglect. Shortly after her death, Maynard reached out to her grieving partner, Bruce McIntyre, and the two men formed a strong bond, moving forward as single fathers. They became activists, demanding accountability from the medical community, the creation of safe spaces for underserved communities dealing with these issues, and reform.

I spoke with the filmmakers about the process of creating Aftershock during the pandemic. We also discussed what brought them to this topic and what viewers can do to stop the maternal mortality crisis.

Risa Sarachan: What was the process of creating this film during a pandemic? How did you work around the restrictions of COVID?

Paula Eiselt: Thankfully, when the pandemic hit, we already had a good creative foundation that allowed us to pivot and adapt our process after the initial shock of it all. I was actually pregnant with my fourth child and due in March 2020 when I began the project. So, when I later partnered with Tonya, it became imperative that we met certain early production milestones by March of 2020, giving us the momentum we ultimately needed in order to continue the process through early COVID!

We adapted our production process in several ways. The first thing we did was provide iPhones to our protagonists – Shawnee Benton Gibson, Omari Maynard, and Bruce McIntyre – so they could self-document during the lockdown periods. In addition to capturing key intimate moments of their journeys, the iPhones allowed for a deeper collaboration with protagonists by putting the camera in their hands for that time period. It was a nice silver lining. For core events and production needs, we filmed as much as possible outdoors and had a skeleton crew that was regularly testing. While many events that we would have liked to film were canceled or moved to Zoom, the limitations of what we could capture and how forced us to be a lot more selective and judicious with our storytelling, ultimately leading to new elements of creativity.

There were some institutional shoots, specifically all the hospital and Harvard production, that we did have to delay and shoot with a barebones crew later than we initially planned. But we did get it all in the end!

Tonya Lee Lewis: We are deeply thankful to the hospital staff because the moment they were able to allow us in with our small crews following their protocols we were really able to capture important elements of the story.

Sarachan: What inspired you to create Aftershock?

Lewis: Traveling the country with the infant mortality awareness raising campaign, “A Healthy Baby Begins With You,” out of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, opened my eyes to the women’s health issues we have in the United States and most especially the disparity in care and health outcomes. I was inspired to produce and co-direct Aftershock by the sheer number of stories I heard first-hand from people across the nation about the preventable death of a loved one from childbirth complications.

Eiselt: As a feminist activist and social justice leader in my community, I’ve always been passionate and outspoken about women’s rights. I was initially drawn to maternal health justice, specifically through my own traumatic pregnancy and birth experiences which inspired me to make my first feature, 93Queen, about dignified health and maternal care in the Hasidic community. A co-production with POV and Arte, that film was released worldwide, and now streams on HBO Max, and was used by the U.S. State Department’s film diplomacy program.

It wasn’t until late 2017 that I truly understood that the United States was in the midst of a full-blown maternal mortality crisis, with Black women dying three times the rate of White women, making this country the single most dangerous industrialized country to give birth in. I remember that moment of sickening realization clearly. I came across an article by ProPublica titled “Nothing Protects Black Women From Dying in Pregnancy and Childbirth” about the preventable postpartum death of Shalon Irving. Shalon had been a lieutenant commander of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, where she had served as an epidemiologist for the CDC studying health equity. After giving birth to her daughter, Shalon reported not feeling well to several providers at several appointments and was dismissed despite her very troubling symptoms and medical readings. She died three weeks after giving birth. At her funeral, her father remarked that he had never seen a room with so many doctors, so many PhDs.

Shalon had everything that a pregnant woman is told she is supposed to have to ensure a healthy outcome: advanced education, a stable job, a supportive family, and good healthcare. She even specialized in public health equity. And yet, like Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac of Aftershock, that did not protect her from the scourge of the maternal mortality crisis that is rooted in racism. By the end of the article, I was furiously devastated and embarrassed to be an American. I felt called to use my skills as a filmmaker, and my deep first-hand knowledge of the American maternal health system as a mother of four young children to uplift stories like Shalon’s – such as Shamony Gibson’s and Amber Rose Isaac’s – to highlight the work of activists on the ground working for change, and to hold our medical systems and governments accountable.

Sarachan: How did you connect with the families featured in the film?

Eiselt: Beginning in development, it was imperative to me that Aftershock be a character-driven film. I believe that the only way to present this large national crisis in a way that will touch people and change hearts and minds is through intimately witnessing the human experience and ripple effect of it all. After researching for months, I came across a call-to-action event called Aftershock by Shawnee Benton Gibson and Omari Maynard, commemorating the life of their daughter and partner Shamony Gibson, who passed away from preventable postpartum complications just a couple of months prior to this event. I reached out to Shawnee, and I knew from that one phone call that she was incredibly special. Shawnee invited me to come film the event, and that set forth the trajectory of the rest of the film. Shawnee was truly our guiding light.

When Amber Rose Isaac passed away in April 2020, Omari reached out to Amber’s partner Bruce McIntrye, and we immediately started capturing Bruce’s story. Everything was an organic connection.

Dr. Neel Shah is a leader and whistleblower in the OBGYN field who I had come across very early in my research, so when he connected with Bruce after Amber’s death, that was yet another connection. We followed Dr. Shah to Tulsa where he launched his initiative Team Birth, and while there connected with Labrisa Williams of the Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative, who connected us with Felicia Ellis, the pregnant woman in Aftershock. It was incredible to have these organic handoffs, exhibiting our deep collaboration with the heroes of our film.

Sarachan: The interviews presented in the film are riveting. What did you learn from speaking to the people featured in the film?

Eiselt: Thank you! What I love most about the interviews is that they bolster the foundational stories of the protagonists. The interviews with Shawnee, Omari and Bruce are key in understanding the medical negligence behind the deaths of Shamony and Amber. It was vital that those details were shared through their own voices. Visually, we framed them to have a royal aesthetic giving our lead characters the authority and reverence they deserve when telling their story.

Dr. Neel Shah provides critical testimony on how the American maternal health system was designed and incentivized to intervene leading to skyrocketing c-section rates over the past 25 years, directly correlating with our high maternal mortality rate.

Helena Grant’s interview blew me away. Helena is a certified nurse midwife and national leader in midwifery. She is also a historian. After we recorded Helena’s interview, the entire team was in awe. There could be a whole film based on just her interview. Helena traces the history of the maternal mortality crisis from ancient history to the American enslavement and experimentation of Black women until today. She shows how the maternal mortality crisis driven by racial disparities is part of a historical continuum that has commodified and devalued Black women since 1619. The maternal mortality crisis didn’t pop up out of nowhere. The foundation of inhumane treatment was established in slavery and the torturous gynecological experimentation by White men. It then continued through the first half of the 20th century, when Black midwives were stripped of their licenses and autonomy to practice in their communities, to today, where health providers, on the whole, are not seeing and hearing Black women, resulting in either neglect or over-intervention for the sake of profit and expediency. Learning about how we got here has not only given me a clearer understanding of why we are in crisis, but this history has also taught me where the solutions lie: community-centered dignified care and full spectrum bodily autonomy within a fully integrated maternal health system.

Another mind-blowing fact I learned is that the “delivery” in “labor and delivery” comes from the biblical phrase “deliver us from evil,” as women need to be “delivered” from their own evil. Knowing where that language comes from is particularly piercing in our now post-Roe world.

Lewis: Shawnee, Omari and Bruce allowed us to film them early in their grieving process. What I learned from them is the power of eternal love. The love of Shamony and Amber is the driving force of their activation to try to improve birthing outcomes for all people, and their love of community keeps them going.

Also, in speaking to Dr. Neel Shah and the midwife Helena Grant, I came to understand that there are many people within the healthcare system that know that change needs to happen and are working to create that change. I also learned that the maternal health crisis did not just happen. That the preventable deaths of Black women from childbirth complications are rooted in a system built on racism and a system that values profit over life. And I learned that it is an issue that can be solved if all of us do our part to change it.

Sarachan: I loved the way that Aftershock not only presented the crisis of our broken maternal healthcare system but also presented some solutions. Why was that important for you to include?

Eiselt: From the get-go, Tonya and I did not want to make a doom and gloom film. The last thing we wanted was for women, particularly Black women, to fear giving birth. It was really important to show that there are very tangible and immediate solutions to this crisis from personal empowerment, legislation and systemic accountability. I especially wanted the choices around maternity care to be front and center, as demonstrated in Felicia’s birth, to empower women to choose what’s best for them. Birthing options are vital because they provide choice, and choice is the foundation of autonomy; autonomy is the root of patient empowerment and self-advocacy, which is scientifically proven to lead to better outcomes. In the same way that it’s a human right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy, if one does choose to have a baby, then it’s a human right to not only survive that pregnancy, but to receive dignified care free of trauma. Every woman should have the right to choose where they birth and with whom they birth. Whether they have a c-section or home birth, each woman deserves empowered and supported dignified care. The control is in our hands, we are the consumers, and we need to own and safeguard that power.

Lewis: We want the film to be a tool that sparks conversation with people from all walks of life so that we can talk about the very real human solutions that can help save lives. The last thing we wanted to do was to present a problem, shrug our shoulders and say good luck. Our hope is that Aftershock can be used to be a part of the solution.

Sarachan: What did it mean to you to screen Aftershock at Sundance?

Lewis: Paula and I had Sundance as our goal post. Getting Aftershock into Sundance was not just a validation of the work, but the opportunity to bring the stories of Shamony and Amber to a wider audience, to honor their legacy. Having a film about Black maternal health at the preeminent independent film festival in the United States elevates the conversation about Black maternal health. It is significant to have that community recognize the value and importance of the story. It is also incredibly gratifying as an artist to have the work acknowledged by the independent film community, especially with the Special Jury Award for Impact for Change. Screening at Sundance also meant that we were at a premium sales market which allowed us to find the right home for the film at Onyx Collective and ABC News.

Eiselt: World Premiering and winning the Special Jury Award Impact for Change at Sundance was one of the most gratifying moments of my career. Sundance has been a longtime deep supporter of my work; from the Documentary fund to the producer’s summit to the Catalyst Forum, Sundance’s artist support is unparalleled. Sundance has nurtured my work in ways I cannot begin to describe. So, to be able to premiere Aftershock within this special community and receive this platform was a dream come true.

Sarachan: Are there resources you can recommend for viewers who want to participate in this conversation and help aid in this movement for a better maternal healthcare system?

Lewis: There are many organizations doing amazing work. I can suggest a few: Black Women’s Blueprint, Black Mamas Matter, National Birth Equity Collaborative, the Health Equity Initiative, the organization founded by Shawnee and Omari, The ARIAH Foundation, and the organization founded by Bruce, the SaveARose Foundation.

I would also say look to the doulas, midwives and anyone doing maternal health work in one’s specific community. The issues of maternal health are national, but they are also very localized. Every community has a social justice warrior doing the work under the radar that needs some help. We just have to actively look for them.

Eiselt: The protagonists in our film – Shawnee, Omari and Bruce – are doing incredible work in the birth justice movement. Bruce is working to bring a birthing center to the Bronx and has recently launched the Womb Bus, which is maternal healthcare on wheels. He frequently visits the White House and is working on multiple national projects. Shawnee and Omari are using the power of art and community building to raise awareness of and support those affected by the maternal mortality crisis. Black Mamas Matter is a leading organization in the movement working on education and solutions. Additional resources can be found on the Aftershock Hulu page, which will include a full educational guide.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Aftershock is now on Hulu.

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