In the United States, maternal mortality rates for Black women are several times higher than rates for white women. Now, a new documentary, Aftershock, explores why so many Black women are dying—and what happens to the families they leave behind.
The film’s directors, Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, did not want to bombard the audience with statistics. While Aftershock follows the stories of two women, Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, who died during or after childbirth, it also celebrates their lives and legacies, recognizing that they were more than numbers on a sheet.
“When Tonya and I sat down, we decided first and foremost, this needs to be a human story,” Eiselt tells Salon’s Melanie McFarland.
At the beginning of Aftershock, a clip from a home movie shows a 30-year-old Gibson and her mother, Shawnee Benton Gibson, laughing about their toothbrushes. Shamony’s toothbrush has bristles squashed to the plastic, which Shawnee points to as a sign of how “over the top” her daughter is in “every aspect of life.”
“She brushes her teeth like the teeth did something to her!” says Shawnee.
In October 2019, after the birth of her second child, Shamony started experiencing sharp chest pains. But when she went to the hospital, doctors kept asking if she was on drugs. Eventually, after her concerns were continuously dismissed by medical professionals, she died from a pulmonary embolism.
“A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police,” says Felicia Ellis, another Black mother, in the film.
Grieving, Shawnee and Omari Maynard (Shamony’s partner) decided to hold a celebration of Shamony’s life. They called it “Aftershock,” which became the name of the documentary, reports the New York Times’ Maya Salam.
Later, the film shifts to focus on the men left behind: Maynard and Bruce McIntyre (Isaac’s partner). Isaac died in 2020 during an emergency cesarian section, a procedure that is much riskier than a vaginal delivery.
Together, Maynard and McIntyre created a community for fathers to talk about their loss, channeling their grief into activism, according to the Washington Post. Maynard paints portraits of mothers who have died; he is also the founder of the ARIAH Foundation, which advocates for the advancement of reproductive innovation through artistry and healing. McIntyre, founder of the saveARose Foundation, turned toward legislation. He is working to bring a birthing center to the Bronx and promoting the work of midwives and doulas, among other activities.
The directors also hope Aftershock will show women what giving birth can look like when mothers receive the care they need. The film ends with Ellis, who chose to give birth in a birthing center, surrounded by women helping her through the journey.
In the words of Salon, Ellis “eats strawberries, receives a massage from a midwife to relieve her pain, and breathes deeply. When the moment arrives there is no screaming, just an exhaled sigh and joyful relief.”
“Felicia is the promise of what it could be [like] when women choose … where they birth, with whom they birth, who’s in the room,” Eiselt tells Salon. “This is the result of what an integrated system could look like.”