A pregnant Black woman walks into a hospital prepared to give birth. She is excited and, maybe, a bit nervous. The doctors on call successfully deliver her baby. She leaves the maternity ward with her new child. A few weeks later, she dies.
A pregnant Black woman walks into a hospital prepared to give birth. She is thrilled, glowing and a bit nervous. Her previous doctor’s appointments didn’t leave her confident about the kind of care she would receive. Bad feelings persist, but she tries to shake them off. The doctors on call deliver her baby. Hours later, the woman dies.
A pregnant Black woman walks into a hospital… These stories begin and end the same way: Delivery followed by death. When examined together, as they are in the gripping documentary Aftershock, they paint a distressing portrait of Black maternal mortality in the United States.
Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, Aftershock chronicles how two American families cope in the wake of preventable maternal deaths. It’s a clear-eyed, but by no means exhaustive, documentary that investigates this underreported crisis without losing sight of the people processing the depths of their loss.
The legacies of two women — Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac, who died less than a year apart after giving birth — anchor Aftershock. The film opens with a portrait of Gibson, lovingly rendered through a montage of home videos. Her laughter rings, she teases her partner Omari Maynard and spends time with her mother, Shawnee Benton. Through these small moments, Eiselt and Lee successfully capture Gibson’s optimistic personality and her excitement about being a mother.
The next scene interrupts the reverie with reality: The footage, we realize, is the same being shown, four months after Gibson’s death, to an emotional audience of Black people gathering in honor of her would-be 31st birthday. Although beautiful, the vigil frustrates Gibson’s family because they know that Gibson did not have to die. After being discharged from the hospital, the Brooklyn mother — who vigilantly recorded and reported her symptoms — had complained of shortness of breath and fatigue. Doctors repeatedly encouraged her to relax. Two weeks after giving birth, she died from a pulmonary embolism.
Isaac suffered a similar fate. Her partner Bruce McIntyre, who is feeding their child, opens the next scene. Footage of a fresh-faced Isaac making a tutorial video about potting plants follows, and then an interview in which McIntyre shares how her doctors in the Bronx failed to notice low platelet counts that should have classified her as a high-risk pregnancy. They induced her labor, performed a C-section and neglected her until it was too late.
When Maynard heard about Isaac’s death, which was publicized in both local and national news outlets, he reached out to McIntyre and a friendship was born. Eiselt and Lee, with the help of the film’s editors, Flavia de Souza and Sunita Prasad, adeptly stitch together the two men’s respective journeys. Galvanized by their partners’ deaths, they decided to join the movement for Black maternal health justice and bring awareness to the issue. Maynard and Gibson’s mother, Shawnee, started a group to help other Black men who lost their partners to maternal death grieve and find strength. McIntyre tried to bring as much attention to Isaac’s case, to get accountability from the hospital where she died and to initiate alternative birthing options for women in the Bronx.
Aftershock doesn’t stop at these two fathers. Eiselt and Lee periodically zoom out to contextualize and highlight the urgency of their efforts. Interview subjects include Neel Shah, professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Harvard School of Medicine, and Helena Grant, director of midwifery at the Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn. Their frank testimonies offer the clearest picture of the crisis: Shah explains the correlation between the increased hospital preference for C-sections (more dangerous for patients, but faster and cheaper for hospitals) and America’s maternal mortality rate; Grant provides a potent history lesson, efficiently explaining how racism influenced and continues to impact modern gynecology. It doesn’t take long to realize that the dual forces of racism and capitalism are to blame for these deaths.
One might ask: What next? And perhaps Aftershock’s greatest achievement is its refusal to peddle in hopelessness. Solutions do exist. After trekking through history and national statistics, the film returns to the people at the heart of the crisis. We meet Felicia Ellis, a mother to be who lives in Oklahoma, a state whose maternal mortality rate is double that of the nation. A new reality dawns on Ellis after reading about tennis champion Serena Williams’ own harrowing pregnancy. “She is like the best athlete in the world,” Ellis says to the camera about Williams’ experience with resistant doctors, “and she had to make them listen to her about her blood clots.”
Ellis internalizes this fact and does research. She learns of alternative options and decides to give birth in a birthing center. The benefits of that choice are numerous: She can choose between a C-section and natural birth, take her time through labor and overall have less cause to fear for her survival. Options like these aren’t covered by insurance, and so she is faced with a $3,000 bill to pay out of pocket. With the support of her partner, she can fortunately, make it happen.
But that’s not the case for everyone, and Aftershock understands the prohibitive costs of these alternatives. Via montage, the film’s final minutes depict a movement gaining momentum. It returns to Gibson’s family, who take the time to speak to a crowd of hundreds, if not thousands, of people in Washington D.C. Following that are news clips of Illinois congresswoman Lauren Underwood introducing and drumming up support for a bill that will address maternal mortality. The film ends with a powerful reminder that if Black lives matter then Black wombs must matter, too.