Earth Mama Review
A beautiful, challenging portrait of Black motherhood

Art by Courtney Jeffs.

“They try to take our culture, they try to take our homes, try to take our freedom… And you know they’ll try to take our babies too. That’s exactly why we can’t stop fighting for our kids, G,” Trina says, her arms crossed around her chest.

Earth Mama”, written and directed by Savanah Leaf, explores black motherhood in an ever-unstable world with emotional vulnerability and quiet, tense realism that brings the film to a heightened level of craft, storytelling, and theme. 

The film follows Gia (played expertly by Tia Nomore), who is a pregnant single mother in Oakland. Gia struggles with day-to-day life as a single mother; Between seeing her two kids in foster care only for an hour while trying to improve their strained relationship, trying to work extra hours at her job at a mall photography studio to make child support payments, and having a cell phone that constantly reminds her she’s almost out of minutes, it seems Gia’s life is on the verge of collapse. However, this undertone of tension never feels taken too seriously. Leaf takes great care to never depict Gia or her struggles as a single black mother as stereotypical or unrealistic, and instead chooses to show that Gia is human and is flawed, but has the best intentions in mind when she makes mistakes throughout the story.

One of the best parts of the film is the cinematography and the music. Every scene looks amazing, the film being shot on 16mm with vintage lenses by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and utilizing soft, muted color. The film has a vintage, just-before-our-time look and feel to it that invites the viewer to experience Gia’s journey with her in an almost surreal like setting. The soundtrack by Kelsey Lu adds an echoed, distant, spiritual sound to the film. It lingers in the background, drenched in reverb, and the lack of music at times also adds to tension of certain moments, letting sound design guide the viewer through the scene. Moments without music result in elevated tension at times but also ease the viewer into a relaxed state of being, like a deep meditation, in others. Bettye Swann’s version of “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” is a recurring song throughout the film as well, serving as one of Gia’s theme songs.

Savannah Leaf wrote and directed this film but the concept is based off of a short documentary Leaf co-directed with Taylor Russell (“Bones & All”) called “The Heart Still Hums. It follows five women as they fight for their children through the cycle of homelessness, drug addictions and neglect from their own parents. The throughline of mothers struggling over their children and the meaning of black motherhood isn’t something unfamiliar to Leaf, either, as Leaf drew from her own lived experience to bring Gia’s story to life. Leaf was the elder sibling of an adopted child and drew from her memories growing up with that sibling as well as the child’s birth mother in order to craft Gia. “I wrote the first draft of this script before making The Heart Still Hums,” Leaf said in a Letterboxd interview. “That was inspired by so many different mothers in my life, not only my own mother but also my friends’ mothers, friends who were like older siblings, coaches, teachers—all these people who helped raise me and inspired me. [The Heart Still Hums] was a documentary that focused on some mothers who’d given their children up for adoption, some who were dealing with the CPS taking their kids away from them, some who were kids of the foster-care system and now mothers themselves.” Leaf discussed. 

A combination of scenes that brought “Earth Mama to a much more vulnerable place were the scenes at the mandatory testimony course that Gia has to take in order to satisfy her uptight caseworker. Several women who have lost custody of their children stand center frame and give traumatic, but therapeutic descriptions and recountings of their children being taken from them. These stories are painful and ring with an emotional hollowness that comes from the horror of losing a child to the foster care system, their frameworks drawn from “The Heart Still Hums”.

Leaf digs further into this by also showing a scene where Gia interviews some of the men who linger outside her house when she comes home at the end of the day about what it was like being children in the foster care system themselves, and how being swept up into the system can feel utterly destructive for the lives of the children, let alone the mothers. These scenes are quiet and fragile, like glass. “I remember it like it was yesterday.” One of the young men says, his voice hushed and vulnerable. “My mom was holding me and this car just pulled up. They had suits on. They just grabbed me out of my mom’s arms. Didn’t say what’s going on. Just, like, snatched me up like I’m being, like, abducted or something. From that day forward, my life ain’t been the same. In and out of foster care, different ones, you know, and just wondering what’s going on, what’s happening. How’d it go from me being with my mom to total strangers?”

Earth Mama is a film that pays meticulous attention to the little things that operate in a struggling single mother’s life; a declined card, the anxiety over asking for a payment advance at work, and again, the detail of her phone slowly running out of minutes. These details bring us closer to Gia’s struggle and make us feel what she feels, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the need for everyone to just leave her alone so she can do what she knows is right.

Tia Nomore and Savannah Leaf bring Gia and her story to life with clarity, poise, truth, and vulnerability that rings almost like a new genre of film; a Black Expressionist film, wherein the black experience is embodied through sight, sound, story, and color. Nomore plays not only Gia but many other black mothers in the foster care system that struggle with the same problems that she does to this very day. Nomore and Leaf bring a shard of blackness itself to the screen, laid bare to us for an hour and thirty-seven minutes.

“Earth Mama” is now available for VOD rent or purchase.

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