The journey of a medical student and a filmmaker producing a film about disparities in black maternal health

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Maternal mortality is an ongoing topic of conversation due to the harsh reality that black women have fared worse in many areas of reproductive health. According to the CDC, before the pandemic, black women were two to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. And in cities like New York, that number has increased twelvefold, as the city’s Department of Health shares.

Add to that that before conception and childbirth, black women are twice as likely to suffer from infertility as their counterparts. Additionally, research shows that they are less likely to access infertility care. This extends to the disparities that also exist in the postpartum period where black women are twice as likely to experience postpartum mood disorders, in a current environment where there is not much of an outlet. awareness of the broader challenges that postpartum brings to many new mothers.

To shed light on these disparities in pregnancy and early motherhood, medical student and filmmaker Adeiyewunmi (Ade) Osinubi curated a documentary titled Black Motherhood Through The Lens where she follows the stories of four mothers. Osinubi shares more about the mothers’ stories and the inspiration behind the film which was nominated by seven film festivals.

The inspiration that led to the documentary

From an early age, Osinubi was fascinated by telling stories. “I often took trips to the public library to flip through the pages of the Magic Treehouse series and as I grew older my love for stories manifested into an interest in film, women’s health and advocacy,” she shares. After hearing about obstetric fistula – a birth injury that disproportionately affects women in low-resource settings due to a lack of skilled obstetric care – she was motivated to address this inequality. This led her to travel at the age of sixteen to Mekelle, Ethiopia, with a suitcase full of film equipment, to create two disease awareness documentaries. It was then that she realized the intimate connection between stories and medicine to inspire health advocacy.

In 2018, when she became a medical student at Brown University, she noticed the vast media attention surrounding the black maternal mortality crisis. This number touched her deeply and inspired her to cover it in a unique way. “While black maternal mortality received critical media attention, health disparities affecting black women in other areas of reproductive health, such as infertility and postpartum mood disorders, weren’t,” shares Osinubi. She elaborates, detailing, “I decided to independently film and produce ‘Black Motherhood Through the Lens’ to highlight the multitude of health inequalities that black women face, from conception to the postpartum period. The documentary captures the stories of four women: Ijeoma Kola, Shannon Benjamin, Shaylene Costa and Jai-Me Potter Rutledge.

Along with producing the film, she is also attending medical school full-time. Osinubi shares, “It wasn’t an easy task, but it was worth it. I distinctly remember running to the hospital after one of my classes, doing my best not to give up. my heavy camera and stabilizer, in order to capture Benjamin, one of the stories featured in the documentary, as she brought her newborn baby home.

As a student with a very limited budget and schedule, Osinubi served as writer, producer, director, videographer, editor, and audio staff for the film. To support her in this endeavor, she also remembers many university grants, local health organizations and personal savings that earned her the bill. And while noting that she was unsure how she would manage to achieve balance, she gives a nod to her Nigerian upbringing, spirituality, family and mentors who encouraged her.

The conversations the documentary sparked

“The documentary presents many themes and experiences, including medical racism, lack of access to infertility care, miscarriages, fears surrounding childbirth and the importance of representation in the medical field. It also addresses taboos surrounding infertility and postpartum mood disorders,” shares Osinubi. For example, one woman, Kola, talks about how the potential popular media perceptions of black women as hyper-sexual and hyper-fertile are very damaging, especially for those struggling to conceive. The film also debunks these perceptions by sharing statistics on general miscarriage rates (10-15% of pregnancies end in miscarriage) and the harsh realities facing black infertility rates.

Plus, star mom Costa talks about her experience of infertility without having health insurance. The average cost of in vitro fertilization (IVF) is around $12,000, which was out of the question for her. “Even if you have insurance, many IVF costs are still not covered,” says Osinubi. The documentary also conveys the power of limited but substantial support. An understanding doctor allowed Costa to get free samples of fertility-enhancing drugs, get pregnant twice, and then have two deliveries.

The stigma surrounding mental health is also addressed when Potter Rutledge, also featured in the film, reveals that he agrees to take antidepressants for postpartum depression. Potter Rutledge hid her medication from family members in the trunk of her car due to the stigmas she encountered around mental health that are relevant in black communities and are amplified when medication is linked.

The current impact of the film and the director’s hope for the future

Black Motherhood Through the Lens has been accepted into seven film festivals to date, including the American Public Health Association Film Festival, Rhode Island Black Film Festival, Fargo Black Film Festival, Ivy Film Festival, International Black and Diversity Film Festival, the Liftoff Sessions and the Impact DOCS Awards where it received an Award of Merit. In addition to film festivals, Black Motherhood Through The Lens has been presented by national organizations such as the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the National Birth Equity Collaborative, as well as at universities and medical schools across the country.

Osinubi continues to submit the documentary to other festivals and is eager to share it with the masses given that she has found that many people are still unaware of the extent of the disparities affecting reproductive health, especially for black women. She further hopes that the documentary will continue to be part of national conversations aimed at eradicating health inequities.

The medical student and full-time filmmaker plans to educate healthcare professionals about the possibilities of improving maternal and reproductive health for all as a central part of public education. She is convinced that the documentary can contribute to this conversation and looks forward to the positive developments in the field that will follow. After graduating from medical school and beginning residency, Osinubi plans to continue using film and storytelling as means of health education, awareness and advocacy.

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