"Aftershock", Directed by Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee, July 2022
Review by Sophia
Following the preventable deaths of two healthy Black women, 30-year-old Shamony Makeba Gibson in 2019, and 26-year-old Amber Rose Isaac in 2020, the documentary Aftershock chronicles how two families in New York City are coping with their grief while fighting to expose the systemic racism of the US maternal healthcare system.
It begins with a montage of home videos showing a pregnant Shamony, who is laughing and excited about being a mother, before flashing forward to the present day, where her mother, Shawnee Gibson, and partner, Omari Maynard, detail the tragic story of her death. After the birth of her son, Shamony experienced recurrent shortness of breath and dizziness. Doctors told her to relax and rest – that her symptoms are normal after a Caesarean section. Two weeks later, Shamony collapses with sharp chest pains. Paramedics repeatedly ask whether Shamony is on drugs despite her mother explaining her recent Caesarean section. The following day, she dies from a pulmonary embolism.
The documentary then cuts to Bruce McIntyre, Amber’s partner, who is feeding their new-born baby. He shares how Amber’s doctors failed to notice her low platelet count throughout her pregnancy, which would put her at high-risk of complications during childbirth. After inducing her labour, she is rushed into theatre for an emergency Caesarean section, but she loses too much blood, and passes away.
When Omari hears about Amber’s death, he reaches out to Bruce and the two develop a lifelong friendship. They decide to turn their “pain into power” and join the movement for Black maternal health justice alongside Shawnee, a social worker and reproductive justice activist. Shawnee uses the term “aftershock” to describe the tsunami of people affected by the death of a young Black mother: children, partners, families, and communities. They advocate nationwide for Black reproductive justice and create a community space where bereaved Black men can gather to support one another.
To contextualise the crisis, Eiselt and Lee interview a range of other people, including Neel Shah, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Harvard School of Medicine. Shah explains that the maternal mortality rate (MMR) is four times higher for Black women in the US (and eight times higher in New York City) than for their White counterparts. The US MMR is the highest of all high-income countries and is increasing rapidly, which Shah explains is due, in-part, to an explosion of Caesarean section births (5.5% to 32% from 1970 to 2019), of which a high proportion are among Black women. The World Health Organization recommends an ideal rate of 10-15%. Hospitals prefer Caesareans as doctors are paid more per birth. While they save many lives, Caesareans carry a three-fold greater risk of infection and complications.
Other interviewees include Helena Grant, midwife at Woodhull Medical Center in Brooklyn, who chronicles the historical use of Black women for gynaecological testing, and how this has influenced modern reproductive health. She advocates for women-centred care – that women should have a choice and be listened to at all stages of their birthing process. Also documented is the journey of Felicia Ellis, a pregnant Black woman, who is deciding where to give birth in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa has one of the worst MMR in the country. She puts the weight of her decision on where to give birth frankly: ‘A Black woman having a baby is like a Black man at a traffic stop with the police. You have to really pay attention to what’s going on every step of the way”. She safely delivers her child at a birthing centre, at an out-of-pocket cost of $3,000.
Aftershock makes a compelling case for maternal health as a fundamental human right, where all women should have the right to deliver a healthy child and live to raise that child. Shah believes that MMR reflects the broader wellbeing of society, and such wide racial disparities in MMR are indicative of US societal injustice as a whole. The documentary ends with a poignant reminder from Shawnee Gibson, that “Black lives matter because Black wombs matter”.