The United States has the worst maternal mortality rate of any “developed” nation in the world — and like all the country’s myriad other issues, this problem is intensified when it intersects with race-based discrimination. Being Black and pregnant in the US is far more dangerous than it should be. The historical roots of this phenomenon, and its continual contemporary fallout, are tackled in the new documentary Aftershock. The film’s name speaks to the ripple effect of maternal death; it is not a single tragedy but an ongoing one, as it leaves bereft children, partners, and often parents as well. Childbearing is given a hallowed status by every culture on Earth, but the film scrutinizes how a combination of racism, technological fetishism, and anti-human capitalist incentives have corrupted the process in the US.
The movie focuses in particular on two specific cases. Both Shamony Gibson and Amber Rose Isaac died not long after giving birth, due to complications that would have been easily resolved if doctors had paid more attention to them and taken their concerns seriously. Directors Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt make Gibson and Rose Isaac’s family members the effective leads of the film through their respective fights (which then become joined) for restitution and justice. Other figures include doctors trying to shift the recognition of racist bias in medical fields and midwives advocating for methods of childbirth that center the patients rather than the convenience of doctors.
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It’s a lot of ground to cover, and it’s to the film’s credit that it can unspool what looks like a single issue into a broader indictment of US society. Black maternal mortality is not merely one side effect of contemporary racism, but part of the very marrow of US medical practice. The documentary explores how experimentation on enslaved people formed the basis of gynecology as a discipline, and the intertwined forces of patriarchy and religion that shifted childbirth from the purview of midwives to that of doctors.
Aftershock is a confrontation, a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” isn’t just a rallying cry against overt, visible brutality like what’s performed by the police. It can be difficult to grasp the “violent” part of systemic violence, and the stories presented here are a corrective to that mindset. It’s not an aesthetically adventurous film, instead trusting the strength of its information and its characters. Coming as it does amidst a seismic shift in reproductive rights in the US, it could be a rallying call, or a bad omen of worse things to come.
Aftershock will be available to stream on Hulu starting July 19.