The searing documentary, Aftershock, addresses the maternal health crisis suffered by Black women in the United States. The title refers to the horrors that follow a tsunami. St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, executive produced Aftershock/. In the angry, righteous hands of the directors, Tonya Lewis Lee and Paula Eiselt, Aftershock is compelling.
The film profiles two women whose tragic deaths were absolutely preventable. Shamony Gibson, age 30, died of a pulmonary embolism in 2019 within two weeks of delivering her son by Caesarian section. Her mother, Shawnee Benton Gibson, is a medical social worker active in the field of reproductive justice — but a fat lot of good that did to help save her daughter. Benton Gibson’s rallying cries are “Black Wombs Matter” and “Shamony Mkeba Gibson is alive in this movement.”
Gibson’s partner, Omari Maynard, reaches out to another Black man whose partner, Amber Isaac, died under similar circumstances. Theirs are the human faces behind statistics, which the film cites without overwhelming the narrative. For example: Black women are four times as likely to die as white women with the same symptoms.
Aftershock covers topics from gynecologists who used Black women as guinea pigs to the white male doctors who shoved Black midwives aside and to hospitals’ financial incentives for C-sections. The film follows the last weeks of Felicia Ellis’ pregnancy and her compassionate care in a birthing hospital. Ellis mentions Serena Williams, tennis great, who could not get doctors to listen to her, postpartum. The film presents doulas’ points of view as well as that of Neel Shah, a medical doctor and Harvard professor, who is actually listening to women.
Aftershock tells the tragic stories of Black women’s deaths in childbirth, but it also presents the good news of angry activism by galvanized mourners, of grieving men gathering in support groups, of families celebrating babies’ first birthdays, of single men raising their babies, and protestors who stand outside hospitals or appeal to politicians, like Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
Aftershock opens a much needed conversation because in this country, “A Black woman giving birth is like a Black man at a traffic stop.”