Another immersion in the exploration of systematic oppression for Black cinema, Earth Mama is a deeply artful portrait of a young pregnant woman’s resilience against the foster care system. Through pristine use of super 16mm film stock and impressive tracking shots, the searing debut feature by Savanah Leaf adds another essential entry of the year in this visually sublime film about oppressed black women trapped in a system of structural inequality that keeps an endless cycle of pregnant women coerced into giving up their children due to a system that prefers to keep the status quo maintained instead of helping mothers find the economic equalities that would prevent more families from being separated. Aesthetically and thematically in line with A Thousand and One, this is an emotionally bleak but eventually exalted artwork that eventually resonates and fulfills.
Based on the short film, The Heart Still Hums, by Leaf herself and Taylor Russell, Earth Mama exists in the world of “throwaway moms” who are financially or mentally struggling and who are in and out of rehab or in remission, but their mistakes cost them their parental rights in the unfair legal system. Leaf clearly holds sincere empathy; she is able to bring compassion to her characters and stimulate the viewer. The setting takes place in the city of Oakland, California, where many pregnant Black single women face similar uphill battles.
Courtesy A24 Films
At the center of the tale is the pregnant Gia (Tia Nomore), a single mother of two children who is very determined to prove to the court system that she is a competent mother with crippling expectations. She has a history of drug addiction but has remained in remission since her pregnancy. While pregnant, Gia must pay child support to her other two kids, work a job at the mall, and take drug tests. She gets to see her son and daughter for only one hour a week, and she soon realizes that adoption is the more practical option at this point in her life.
While the subject matter is certainly denuded of emotional bleakness and authenticity, there is some comforting joy to be found in the film. Instead of just being an overbearing exercise in despair, Leaf is able to dramatize the unanimity of a group of Black women that are confined to the same system. Her close friend, Traina (Doechi), who is also pregnant, and she go on late drives together and get fast food runs, and they encourage each other on how they can improve their daily lives and how to open up further in their group therapy sessions. Another moving friendship in the film is Mel’s (Keta Price), a friend from grade school who helps her build a crib and takes her to doctor visits. Finally, Gia befriends Carmen (Erika Exlancer), who works in the foster care system but ends up becoming a trusted ally. With some skeptics, Gia ends up warming up to her, and she requests that she prefer a Black family to adopt her newborn. Ultimately, all the friendships eventually come with imperfections, but they care about each other’s future and are committed to self-improvement.
Courtesy A24 Films
With elegant camera work by cinematographer Jody Lee, the use of long takes, tracking shots, and slow push-ins adds to the ongoing flow and space of Gia’s ever-evolving world. There is an ethereal and woozy tone to the aesthetics as well. The acting is top-notch too, especially Namore, who doesn’t give one false note, and you can tell so much veracity was placed into the vulnerable role.
As the protagonist yields along with her late-term pregnancy, the film’s title comes to the surface. The forces of nature are always hefty and there to confine you, yet the right friendships and relationships can keep the realms from completely sinking. The film has a sense of time that contains brutal truths and shimmers of hope. It’s a deeply moving debut that effectively combines many accomplished efforts with its elegant camerawork, engaging storytelling, and a first-rate cast of growing talents.
Earth Mama is now playing in limted theaters