At a sidewalk rally in New York City, a black woman in a purple dress speaks into a megaphone. Next to her is a younger black man with sunglasses, a moustache, a beard, and a tropical shirt. Men and women -- many of them black but a few white and Asian -- stand and sit behind them, holding signs with slogans such as "Black Birth Matters."

SXSW 2022 Review: “Aftershock”

Year: 2002
Runtime: 89 minutes
Directors: Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee
By Valerie Kalfrin

The documentary “Aftershock” delivers a wrenching blow: The United States has the highest maternal mortality rate of industrialized countries—and black mothers have a higher risk of dying.

Shown at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, “Aftershock” has the feel of immediacy, following two New York City fathers’ steps into activism months after losing their partners. The women died mere weeks or moments after giving birth.

Directors Paula Eiselt (“93Queen”) and Tonya Lewis Lee patiently build this aching narrative, showing social media videos of these women. Amber Rose Isaac, working on her master’s degree and expecting her first child, talked through how to plant seeds for a garden. Shamony Gibson, mom to a young daughter, giggled with partner Omari Maynard and talked to their son-to-be.

Both women delivered healthy sons. Yet about two weeks after her Cesarean section, Gibson complained of shortness of breath and chest pains. She died of a pulmonary embolism.

Isaac also complained of shortness of breath, plus headaches. After months of doctors saying these were typical pregnancy woes, her partner, Bruce McIntyre, consulted with a midwife. She reviewed Isaac’s medical records and urged the couple to get to the hospital.

Isaac’s platelets, which help the blood to clot, had dropped for months, leaving her with HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening condition also involving elevated liver enzymes. Soon after she tweeted in April 2020 about the hospital’s incompetence, she underwent a C-section and bled out on the table.

The hospital called Isaac’s death tragic, yet said its maternal mortality rate was lower than the national average. As the fathers learn there are other bereaved dads like them, “Aftershock” unfolds like a compassionate procedural, weaving an abbreviated history of gynecology with statistics and the “birth justice” movement, culminating in legislation about maternal health.

Gibson’s mother, Shawnee Benton-Gibson, is a firebrand throughout, joining the fathers on sidewalks with a megaphone, speaking at a New York City council hearing, and later to a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool. Black lives matter, the protestors say, but black births matter too.

Nationwide, black mothers’ mortality rates have doubled in recent years to 44% in 2019, up from 22% in 1995, the film notes. That parallels the growth of C-sections, which have increased to 32% in 2019 from about 6% in 1970.

Cesareans save lives, says but “major surgery is major surgery,” says Dr. Neel Shah, an obstetrics and gynecology professor at the Harvard School of Medicine.

Industrialized medicine is part of the issue. “Aftershock” visits a hospital floor during the start of a shift where a supervisor runs down a list of the many births they’re inducing that day. Cesareans are quicker than vaginal deliveries but also more lucrative, with hospitals receiving greater insurance payouts for these surgeries, the film says.

While that creates a troubling incentive, some software also might view patients through a racist lens. Shah shows one such program that rates patients’ odds of success for different procedures, automatically ranking black patients lower regardless of health. “I started thinking about my own practice and how really well-intended people can be doing racist things,” he says.

The film leans heavily on midwives and birthing centers as alternatives to hospitals, especially for women without private insurance; that’s understandable, given these families’ situations, and Shah provides a good balance.

The heart of the film, though, is the bond that develops among these fathers. They nod in understanding when Charles Johnson, whose wife, Kira, died of internal bleeding after delivering their son, says he feels like a failure for not protecting her.

Johnson also says he didn’t think he had the “latitude” to act as upset in the hospital as a white father would. “The moment I raise my voice,” he says, “I’m no longer a patient concerned about his wife. I’m perceived as a threat.”

The men are determined to be there for each other. An artist, Maynard paints portraits of the moms for their partners, just like he painted Gibson’s portrait for their children. The fathers also gather on video calls, wishing their children happy birthdays.

Ultimately, the film’s message is for these moms to be seen, heard, and safe. “It should be a fundamental human right in this country to deliver a healthy child and live to raise that child,” Johnson notes.

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