Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that Black women are three times more likely to die during childbirth than white women are. It is a painful reminder that “it is racism, not race, that is killing America’s Black mothers and babies” (Johns Hopkins University).
Netflix’s upcoming short film Weathering tells the story of a grieving Black journalist who finds herself alone and ignored during and after a traumatic childbirth. Black women speak out to their healthcare providers about concerning symptoms that are often dismissed — a constant theme throughout the film. Much of this dismissal is due to an unconscious bias in our medical system and those who are a part of it. As a Black woman, the main character, Gemina, suffers the heavy burden of her own mental health.
BGN had the pleasure of speaking via Zoom with the film’s writer/director, Megalyn Echikunwoke, about why she chose to champion this particular topic, the myth of the strong Black woman, and why preventive health and healing should matter most.
The concept of weathering in this film focuses on Gemina (Alexis Louder) and how she is gaslit and ignored during her childbirth experience. It is also about the long-term stress that affects the body and mental health. Can you talk more about the concept of weathering and why it was important for you to spotlight it in this film?
All of the things you just mentioned are things I think about a lot. [Weathering is] about being a Black woman and hearing the stories that I’ve heard. I have a lot of mental illness in my family, so I think about Black mental health a lot. I’ve done a lot of research about it.
I grew up on a Navajo reservation in Arizona; I’m half Nigerian, half white. I went to Santa Monica High School. My personal identity forced me to think about our mental health differently. I have brothers, so I have Black men in my family, and they have experienced incarceration. One brother lives with schizophrenia.
Over the pandemic, I was writing and wanted to tell a story of a Black woman struggling with her mental health. Then I started to learn about Black maternal health and how abysmal it is; how badly Black women are treated during maternity by hospitals, doctors, and healthcare professionals. I read about Serena Williams, and I had no idea that she almost died because her doctor wouldn’t listen to her. Then I read more stories.
I was so shocked and angry. Then I thought about how I could tie these things together because they are inextricably linked. In terms of Black women’s mental health, what would that experience do to her? I just started writing, based on all that, knowing I wanted to tell this story. I thought that point of view would be even more powerful.
There is so much stress in just being a Black woman, and it is literally killing us. In the film, Gemina struggles, but even more so because everyone is dismissing what she’s going through. The myth of the strong Black woman is killing us. Can you talk about this trope? And why do you think we’re expected to carry this burden?
For me, that’s a real source of rage. So when I’m writing, I think, what are we supposed to do with all this rage? A lot of mental illnesses, conditions, and disorders are like things stuck inside your body that you can’t get out.
As Black women, we experience all this, but we have no way to get it out. We are not allowed to say something is hurting. It’s “Oh, you’re overreacting,” “You don’t actually feel pain,” or “You’re being so aggressive.” We can’t express normal emotions. It sucks. Especially, in this industry, no one wants to be misunderstood. Black women are the most misunderstood people in this country.
It’s the small things that other people get away with for which we get penalized so hard. I’m not allowed to mess up; I’m not allowed to feel pain; I’m not allowed to speak up for myself. You’re not allowed to really feel because you have to be the strong one. If you’re not the strong one, then what is everyone else going to do?
What resonated with me most in the film is when Gemina gets sucker punched — I didn’t catch on right away to what was happening. Then I had a physical reaction to her symbolic healing at the end. Why did you choose to depict her healing in this way?
In terms of mental health and the Black female experience in the United States, the compounding stress and the inability to express ourselves emotionally the way others are allowed to create a space where we start to believe things that are not true about ourselves and about the world. It can sometimes create paranoia.
In the film, Gemina starts to internalize all of this because she doesn’t know how to express it. Even her mother is telling her she’s fine — to push it down and keep moving. It’s a means of survival. It becomes dangerous.
I chose for her to heal in this way to show her other self represents everything that is not real — the things you can cut off, destroy, and let go of to see your true self. It’s her killing off all the microaggressions, all the paranoia, and all the things that are not real.
If the goal of research studies is to gather data on women’s health, why do you believe Black women, and women of color for that matter, are often excluded?
I don’t know how to combat it — I wish I did. I’d be screaming it from the rooftops. We just aren’t represented. We don’t know why some of the chronic health conditions prevalent in Black women, especially during maternity, happen. It’s a lack of knowledge in the medical industry.
There needs to be a different type of education. There’s a whole story about Black maternal health in this country that started with Black doulas and Black midwives. There’s a whole bunch of knowledge that was just snuffed out. Now, the medical industry is trained to only address symptoms.
Healing is not a big part of healthcare in this country. Preventive health and healing are for everybody. For Black women specifically, we have to be our own best friends. We have to learn about our bodies and take care of our own health. The system fails everyone in this country — especially Black women who are having babies.
Black Maternal Health Week is April 11-17, and we encourage you to uplift these important issues and build more awareness in your community.
Weathering is available April 14, 2023, on Netflix.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.