In ‘Aftershock,’ Paula Eiselt and Tonya Lewis Lee Take On the Black Maternal Mortality Crisis

Needless to say, as women’s reproductive rights are being stripped away across the country following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Aftershock comes at a more vital time than ever. “Abortion care is maternal care is healthcare,” says Eiselt. Honoring the lives of Gibson and Issac, while also uplifting the communities mobilizing to effect change, the film is an essential and inspiring call to action. “Any movement comes from the community, up,” says Lee. “We really had a front-row seat to see how that works.” Here, Vogue sits down with Eiselt and Lee to discuss how Aftershock came to be, the role of community in the birth justice movement, and the intersection between abortion access and Black maternal health.

Vogue: To start, can you talk me through the evolution of Aftershock and how it came to be made?

Paula Eiselt: Maternal health, in general, has been something that’s really important to me as both a mother and an artist. I have four children, and have had my own ordeals in pregnancy and birthing. I come to maternal health with a personal experience, and previously I made a film about birth justice and health equity within the Hasidic community, 93Queen. That film was then used to help the organization get certified to be the first all-female ambulance corps in the United States. So I’m really passionate about stories that uplift amazing women doing incredible things, especially in the healthcare space. 

As I was finishing up 93Queen, I came across a slew of articles in 2017 that really exposed the [maternal mortality] crisis in the media. I read that the U.S. was, in fact, the most dangerous place in the industrialized world to give birth in, and that completely floored me. And then I kept reading that Black women are dying at three times the rate of white women. I realized that what I had experienced on an individual level was statistically so much worse for Black women. With my personal experience, and my skill set as an artist, I really wanted to lift up these stories. I pitched the project to Concordia Studio, and I started researching and developing the project, seeing: Who are the players in the movement? What is the latest? What is going on? And at the same time, I was looking for a collaborator to really take this huge national crisis on. I specifically wanted to work with a Black woman who could provide a perspective that I could never have. Then, Tonya and I were introduced to each other. I was beyond honored and thrilled to be in conversation with her, knowing the work that she does in her community and nationally, and her work as an artist. We met for coffee and then really started going just a month later. We found our main character in Shawnee [Benton Gibson]; she had put up a call to action on Instagram after her daughter Shamony Gibson died. Her and Omari [Maynard] were putting on an event called “Aftershock,” which is the namesake of the film to honor Shamony’s life. I saw that Instagram post and I immediately called Tonya and said, “I think we need to film this, and that this can be our starting point.”

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