As the film’s title goes, “Earth Mama” has a nice ring to it, though “Birth Mama” would probably be more appropriate for former Olympian turned filmmaker Savannah Leaf’s feature debut. Building on the questions posed in her award-winning 2020 short “The Heart Still Humes” — an artful exploration of the social challenges that made her sister’s adoption possible — Helmer casts an empathetic spotlight on one of society’s most harshly judged women: singleness. The black mother on the brink of poverty who gives into her addiction while pregnant.
In such cases the system is clear. Drug use counts as child abuse if a fetus is involved, and automatic safeguards begin to separate a newborn who tests positive for methamphetamine from its mother. The same happened to Leif’s sister Karina. Therefore, you would probably expect the director to approach the incident from the child’s point of view. Instead, Leaf explores what this experience must feel like for a birth mother, imagining the many stresses pregnancy places on these women—not only the factors that can lead to relapse, but the struggle to get their children back after Child Protective Services. Consider them incompetent.
At 24, the main character of “Earth Mama” (played by Oakland rapper Tia Nomore) already has a son and a daughter in foster care, along with another. Gia must sometimes feel like everything is stacked against her, like the system will let her keep the child she’s carrying or return her to the custody of young Trey (Coron Coleman) and Shayna (Alexis Rivas). As it is, she is allowed to see her children for one hour per week. Her own parents and family are completely absent from the picture, and yet Gia is surrounded by other women – friends, mentors, social workers – who try to encourage and support her.
Maternal behavior is not limited to biology, nor is it warranted from actual mothers, and a brief take on the idea of the “Mother Earth” proverb suggests that it takes a village to raise a child. Shooting on grainy, yet warmly lit 16mm stock, DP Jody Lee Lips (“Martha Mercy May Marlene”) avoids the clichés of most social realist dramas. At times, Gear’s situation recalls the Durden brothers’ “L’Enfant,” in which desperate parents sell their newborns on the street, though Leaf — who’s also a photographer and a clean-aesthetic music video director — rejects the pseudo-intruder. The documentary method, with its shaky handheld style, opted instead for intimacy.
Employing sensibility rather than sensibility, the film takes on a feminine form in a traditionally masculine medium: elliptical and observational, as opposed to being driven by plot and action. Most movies feature clear-cut heroes looking for solutions within a given time frame, whereas “Earth Mama” represents a situation that is much broader than Gear, presenting an imperfect hero with no illusions of happiness. Leaf recognizes that no matter what happens to this woman, the problem remains. His portrait is meant to be illuminating, and Nomore makes a great companion to it.
Not once does it feel like he’s acting. Where many performers play with the camera, Nomore often seems to resist it, creating a compelling tension between him and the audience. Here’s a case of a black director representing a black woman’s experience for what will likely be a predominantly white audience (the film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, will be distributed by A24), and Gia seems uncompromising in making more. Merciful or “pleasant.” She is a hostile character who rejects the help offered to her, but in doing so she challenges the status quo, as pregnant friend Trina (Doichie) says, “They’re trying to take away our culture … our home … our freedom … our children.”
Later, realizing that she can control her unborn daughter’s fate, Gia asks her social worker, Miss Carmen (Erica Alexander), about adopting the child. It’s not an easy decision, but Gia seems like she can set her child on a path to avoid some of life’s difficulties. Still, it’s a delicate process, as Carmen introduces him to a hopeful black family (Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Bokem Woodbine) with a teenage daughter, Amber (Kamaya Jones). This girl could be a young Savannah Leaf, meeting her future sister’s birth mother.
But Gia can and will change her mind, which makes it confusing for everyone, the audience included. It’s very easy to remove people from the equation when so much attention is focused on the baby. The film opens and closes with testimony from the other women in the class Gia is forced to attend, who challenge the audience on the other side of the camera to see things from their perspective. “It’s so hard to tell a child that you don’t know yourself well … that every day that goes by, you’re just shaking it up,” says one. She can speak for all mothers, though “Mother Earth” reminds us that each of their experiences is unique.