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‘Aftershock’ Review: Sundance Doc Exposes the Bias in U.S. Maternal Mortality Rates

Directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt deliver a vital and moving documentary that shows the lives behind shameful statistics.

Aftershock
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The tried and true way to break viewers’ hearts is to make them care deeply. “Aftershock” wastes no time in doing just that. Filmmaking duo Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee begin their emotionally resonant, statistically chilling documentary about the dramatically increased numbers of maternal death and morbidity among Black women in the U.S. with montages of two lives. Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac were two young, healthy women who went to hospitals to have their babies and died. Starting with life-affirming scenes of the two vibrant, engaging young women is a decidedly “say her name” salvo.

Who was lost and who they left behind is one of the most powerful ways for storytellers to connect us to tragedies that result from systemic failures. “Aftershock” is the word Shamony’s mother, Shawnee Benton Gibson, used to describe what her feelings were after the unexpected death of her daughter. It was seismic. It was a tsunami. It was avoidable. The same was true of Isaac’s death: It was catastrophic and preventable.

When Shamony died in October 2019, her partner, Omari Maynard, became the sole parent of their toddler daughter and newborn son. Six months later, Bruce McIntyre III went from expectant first-time dad to single parent, when Amber Rose died of complications that had preceded her C-section. Maynard and McIntyre are the documentary’s protagonists as they work to bring institutional accountability and public awareness to the epidemic that claimed their partners. The two young men make a dynamic duo doing the work to make sure what they faced doesn’t happen to others — and if it does happen, to ensure they know they are not alone.

The U.S. maternal death rates are shameful across the board, but the impact on Black women — even those with means — is shocking. “Knowledge doesn’t save you from this epidemic,” says Shawnee Gibson, talking with the head of the Brooklyn organization where Omari launches a group for Black men.

“Aftershock” abounds with magnetic and determined figures bent on changing those startling numbers. Charles Johnson, who lost his wife (and the mother of his sons Charles and Langston), appears before a congressional hearing. Dr. Neel Shah of Harvard Medical School works on health care equity issues and practices. Longtime midwife Helena Grant provides a tutorial on the history of gynecology (and its ugly, unsurprising relationship to slavery) as well as the medicalization of maternal care.

It’s not a shocker when a chart comparing C-sections and vaginal births shows that C-section deliveries take a shorter amount of time, cost less, yet generate 50 percent more revenue for the hospital according to Truven Health Analytics. “You can imagine what kind of incentives that may set up,” suggests Dr. Shah.

Neel takes a trip to Tulsa, Ok., where the maternal death among Black women is even higher than the already dire national statistics. There he finds a community partner in LaBrisa Williams, head of the Tulsa Birth Equity Initiative. Being introduced to community advocates like Williams is one of the great gifts of “Aftershock.”

Pregnant with their first child, Tulsa couple Felicia and Paul Ellis are concerned. “A Black woman having a baby [in the hospital] is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police,” she says, aware of the nation’s and Tulsa’s statistics and chastened by Serena Williams’ story of her own efforts to make her doctors listen when she was pregnant. Their journey is empowering, instructive and sweet.

One can imagine a presentation that begins with weeping and ends with a newborn’s yawl, but the filmmakers are smarter than that. “Aftershock” returns to memories of Shamony and Amber Rose. Circling back to Omari, Bruce and Shawnee reminds the viewer that they answered unfathomable tragedy with a furious compassion and a call for change.

‘Aftershock’ Review: Sundance Doc Exposes the Bias in U.S. Maternal Mortality Rates

Reviewed online, Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition), Jan. 22, 2022. Running time: 89 MIN.

  • Production: Producers: Paula Eiselt, Tonya Lewis Lee. Executive producers: Dawn Porter, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Davis Guggenheim, Rahdi Taylor, Tegan Acton, Emma Pompetti, Janet Tittiger, Patti Quillin, Jennifer, Jonathan Allan Soros.
  • Crew: Director: Paula Eiselt, Tonya Lewis Lee. Camera: Jenni Morello, Kerwin Devonish, Michael Crommett. Editors: Flavia de Souza, Sunita Prasad. Music: Chanda Dancy
  • With: Omari Maynard, Bruce McIntyre III, Shawnee Benton Gibson, Dr. Neel Shah, Helena Grant, Felicia Ellis, Paul Ellis.