A Team of Filmmakers Take on Black Maternal Mortality

Say their names: Shamony Benton-Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac are just two of the too many Black–and Brown–women who are casualties of birthing malpractice. This epidemic is the focus of Aftershock, a documentary that premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and should be at the top of feminist activists’ watchlists. 

Co-directed and co-produced by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, Aftershock is the product of alliance politics, generationally and racially. Eiselt, a Modern Orthodox mother of four, is the director of 93Queen, a 2018 doc about the founding of Ezras Nashim, a Hasidic women’s EMT corps. Radicalized by her own pregnancy and birth traumas, Eiselt (who was pregnant during the filming of Aftershock), realized that her own experiences were an indicator of a much larger narrative that needed to be centered on Black women. 

That realization caused Eiselt to partner with Lewis Lee, a producer and longtime Black women’s health advocate who wrote and produced the 2009 documentary Crisis in the Crib and served as the spokesperson for a governmental infant mortality campaign from 2007-2013. Lewis Lee knew that for Aftershock, she needed to not only co-produce but also co-direct, thus joining a family business (she’s the wife of Spike Lee). This cinematic alliance created a powerful, must-watch documentary, which smartly interweaves memorialization, activism, and medical history. 

The lives and preventable deaths of Shamony and Amber are chronicled through home movies as well as the activism of Shamony’s mother, Shawnee Benton Gibson, and the single dads that are left behind, Omari Maynard and Bruce McIntyre. 

Shamony died of a pulmonary embolism a few weeks after having a C-Section. She complained of shortness of breath at postpartum appointments but was placated with advice to rest and relax. Only when she experienced sharp chest pains, collapsed, and went into shock was she diagnosed and treated—but then at a severely underfunded hospital with limited clinical resources. Shawnee, Shamony’s mom, had been a reproductive activist before her daughter became a maternal death statistic. She had to swallow the bitter truth that even with her extensive body of knowledge about the lack of reproductive equity for Black women, she could not save her own daughter. 

Amber Rose Isaac complained of headaches and dizziness throughout her second and third trimester to no avail. When labor was induced at Montefiore hospital, a C-section followed, during which she bled out. As her medical records clearly showed, her platelet level was dangerously low at the time of her surgery and had been diminishing throughout her pregnancy. Although this is a sure sign of HELLP syndrome, a high-risk pregnancy condition, no one paid attention either to her labs or to her own reports of the symptoms she was experiencing. 

Shamony’s and Amber’s story are representative of a national maternal crisis. The U.S. has the highest rate of maternal mortality of all industrial nations. And birthing while Black carries significantly higher risks than birthing while white. As one woman trying to negotiate a medical system rife with racial disparities observed, for Black women, having a baby is the analogue to Black men getting stopped by the police. 

Racial disparities accumulate to form a death sentence for too many Black women. They are much less likely to have vaginal deliveries, and C-sections, a form of major surgery, are much more likely to involve life-threatening complications. The economics of maternal health care provide incentives for our ridiculously high C-section rates: while C-sections cost less than vaginal births (in part because they take less time), hospitals get paid more for these high-risk procedures. And those without health insurance are less likely to be treated by experienced obstetricians with whom they have an established relationship. Rather, they will be attended by residents who “need to learn to sew.” 

Black women—and their advocates—are more likely to be subjected to racial stereotypes that contribute to higher maternal mortality. For example, as Shamony lay dying, hospital staff repeatedly asked Shawnee and Omari if their loved one was on drugs and couldn’t seem to take “no” for an answer. 

Charles Johnson, who became a Black Wombs Matter activist after he experienced the aftershock of losing his partner and the mother of his child, recalls being asked by a white woman why he didn’t fight harder when he saw blood in his partner’s catheter. In grief and anger, he explains that he has to tow a fine line since, as a Black man, if he raises his voice, he will be read as a “threat rather than a concerned husband.” 

Aftershock refuses to direct its gaze away from the preventable tragedies that exact heartbreaking loss on individuals and communities. Yet it brilliantly refuses to view this maternal epidemic of death and inequity as an intractable problem and devotes a good bit of screen time to those who turn “pain into power.” 

Black men who are grieving single parents are shown supporting one another emotionally and as activists. Footage of a protest organized outside of Montefiore Hospital with Bruce McIntyre speaking about his beloved Amber Rose is an exercise in accountability politics and another face of the Black Lives Matter movement. Omari Maynard, Shamony’s partner, is an artist who paints portraits of the women who were more than statistics and brings them to their grieving partners. And after a remarkable sequence of one woman’s experience at a birthing center, a woman-centered alternative to both hospital and home births, we see plans for building such a center in the Bronx, in a district that has one of the highest rates of C-sections in the city.  

Those of us who came of age with Our Bodies,Ourselves will likely view this film as a continuing chapter of a feminist health movement that still has much work to do when it comes to reproductive justice and birth equity. As Aftershock makes clear, that work is more urgent than ever and part of our nation’s racial reckoning. 

One of the film’s ending intertitles reads like a prayer: “May their memories continue to bring forth change.” To that, we say an emphatic “Amen.”

Image credit: Kerwin Devonish

Helene Meyers is the author of Movie-Made Jews: An American Tradition. She can be found on Twitter @helene_meyers and at https://helenemeyers.com/