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Earth Mama (Savanah Leaf, 2023)

Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama begins with a woman facing the camera, defiantly saying: “I don’t care if y’all don’t care if I do make it. It’s my journey; it’s nobody else’s journey. Nobody is going to walk with these shoes I got on my feet.” With this opening flourish, Leaf’s debut feature—about a young Black mother who struggles to reclaim custody of her kids from the foster-care system in Oakland—announces with bracing frankness that it intends to pander to neither our sympathy nor some generic idea of empathy. That scene, as we eventually learn, is from a support group for women trying to win back their kids from the state; it’s one of the many classes and appointments that 24-year-old Gia (rapper Tia Nomore in a tremendous acting debut) is mandated to attend to prove to child protective services that she deserves to parent her two young children.

Shot head-on, with the directness of nonfiction, these scenes gently stretch the contours of the film beyond the insular, ever-tightening world of its lead, reminding us that her story is not hers alone. Importantly, we never learn Gia’s own story; instead, we are simply confronted with the now—with the freighted choices and decisions Gia navigates every single day. She visits her young daughter and son once a week, under supervision, while preparing to give birth to a third child. She begins contemplating the difficult prospect of giving up her soon-to-be-born baby for adoption, wanting to save the child from the fate of its siblings.

Earth Mama is a story of precarity—Gia barely has money to pay her phone bills or buy presents for her kids, and in one gutting scene, we see her steal diapers—but it’s told with a languor and an insistence on beauty that reengineers how we often perceive destitution. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes shoots the film in gorgeous 16mm, in natural light and lambent colors, so that every character and setting glows with the genuine, generous love with which Leaf and her team regard their subjects. Even as Leaf’s film recalls classics of social realist filmmaking, it reimagines the tropes of the genre with its lushness and its denial of pathos or pity.

Ahead of the film’s release on July 7, I spoke with Leaf about portraying Black motherhood, working with nonprofessional actors, receiving inspiring advice from her fellow Bay Area filmmaker Boots Riley, and much more.

There’s a moment in the film when Gia’s friend Mel calls her “mama,” and she snaps back, “I’m not your mama.” That exchange gets to the root of your film, to its title—to the way we view women, especially Black women, as providers and nurturers, and burden them with that role even in casual ways. At the same time, the film doesn’t resist that trope entirely, either—it presents women as caring and motherly figures.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Black women being mothers, not just to their children but also to other people’s children throughout history, especially in America—how Black women were often mothering slave-owners’ children. In a lot of the literature and art by Black women artists creating pieces about Black mothers, it’s depicted in a painful way. It’s not this beautiful, easy thing for women to do. They’re expected to be mothers from a young age to everybody around them.

I wanted to create that feeling throughout the whole film: as much as Gia wants to be a mother, that desire goes beyond wanting to love and be loved. It’s deeply rooted in the history of Black women and what is expected of them. And even if you want to do it in the most natural way, sometimes your children are taken from you. Gia is called “mama” by the guys on the block, and it’s playful and sweet, but she’s also being reminded of this symbolism. And she is kind of mothering her friends, too—like Mel, who’s lost her own mother. That’s part of their relationship, that nurturing feeling, and Gia is frustrated and angry because when does she get to walk away from that title?

And the ways in which she’s nurturing her friends and community don’t help her social-services case. That’s not seen by the system.

Right. Nobody sees the beauty of her everyday mothering.

I was very moved by the opening scene of the film, which is set in one of the classes Gia is required to attend in order to regain custody of her children. Can you talk about the scenes featuring those classes? Are they nonfiction or do they feature actors?

All of the women in those scenes are people who related to the story in one way or another. We met some of them through organizations that were specifically for mothers dealing with their children being in the foster system. The person in the opening film, Tiffany Garner, was in my short doc, The Heart Still Hums.

And she’s a nonactor, right? 

All of them are. I wrote bits and pieces of the dialogue, and I would ask them to say their lines and to expand on that if they wanted. Most people just kept speaking. The woman that opens the film, that was just full-blown her. Those words are straight from her mouth. It was very powerful. because she’s talking about judgment, and that’s something I was curious about while making this film: is there any way audiences will feel for a Black mother who makes a really difficult decision and a mistake at an important point in her pregnancy? Or do we simply never forgive her for something like that? Listening to Tiffany, I felt like she was talking directly about that. I had this idea that we could put a person in someone else’s shoes, and I love that she said that you can’t. But you can walk beside them—you can see their world and feel with them. It felt like a powerful statement, also about watching movies.

What I found so distinctive about Earth Mama is that you don’t tell us Gia’s backstory. She doesn’t reveal it even though she’s being told to open up more in her classes. You’re telling us, “It doesn’t matter how she got here. She’s here, and it sucks, so just be with her.” 

That’s a really interesting observation. There were definitely drafts of the script that gave you a whole backstory, but I pulled that out because it didn’t really matter. Does it make us empathize with her more if we hear a sob story? That was a tough decision in the writing phase, because that’s kind of what you do in writing. There is usually this moment when you reveal the character’s whole backstory and everything clicks into place. But I was thinking about other filmmakers I love, and they just don’t do that.

Who are some of the filmmakers you were thinking of?

I was thinking of the Dardenne brothers, specifically their movie The Son. I was also thinking of Michael Haneke. Most of the time, he doesn’t do backstory. He’s a master of creating tension with physical space and blocking, and really thinking about the audience watching a scene play out in real time, thinking that they should side with a character, and then everything turns in a matter of a moment. I was also thinking about Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Earth Mama did remind me of films by the Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach, and Mungiu; it has a similar social-realist template. But there’s a wonderful intimacy and softness to Earth Mama that feels different—like when the men hanging outside Gia’s apartment reveal their stories of growing up in foster homes. There’s a lot of love one can feel in the film, to put it simply, that comes through even in its look. 

Something I struggle with in social dramas is that the cinematic language is so heavy-handed, and it paints people in a dark light—not just the lighting, but also emotionally. Sometimes it feels like the film is forcing me to feel a certain way, and it doesn’t feel honest.

When I think about growing up in the Bay Area around people dealing with difficult situations, there’s a sense of community and a lightness. They try to make the most out of their situations: they try to find friendships to uplift them. So I tried to create a language that felt more nostalgic and sensitive to those in front of the camera. The story is so heavy that I don’t think we need to force anything with the visuals. I do have so much love for all these people, and I really hope people come away from the film with that same love, even if they might not agree with every little decision made by the characters.

I sensed that on the level of the cinematography, too. I remember walking away from the film and thinking everyone looked so beautiful, every single character. And it’s not because they’re made up, or wearing fancy clothes. It’s clear that they’re struggling, but you and your cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, create space for beauty simply in the way you light them. 

I really didn’t want everyone to be walking into shadows all the time. Jody did a really good job of leaning into natural lighting. A lot of the lighting in Earth Mama is the ugly fluorescence of hospitals or a room, and we lean into the harshness of daylight. Jody was not afraid to do the opposite of what people tend to do. For example, there’s a scene where Gia is lying on the couch. We didn’t have tons of money or time to set up, and we had one light. So the TV is on and lighting her up, and that’s what it is. It’s simple and flat. That’s what was exciting about working with Jody: he wasn’t afraid to let it be the scene and not do too much to it.

I think he’s a very sensitive cinematographer. There’s something about how lightly he pans the camera or slightly adjusts things, and you’re never consciously thinking about it. I remember watching [the miniseries] I Know This Much Is True and thinking: I know they didn’t block this beforehand. How did he happen to move the camera in a way that feels very thought-out, even if it wasn’t constructed at all? It’s also not overly beautiful. It feels very natural and grounded.

I found the editing of the film to be very languid, too, even though there’s an urgency to Gia’s story. 

George Cragg, our editor, has worked a lot on documentaries, and in documentaries you’re kind of finding an instinctive pace. Sometimes you want to cut a little early, for example, to leave people on their toes and not give too much information.

In The Heart Still Hums, one of the mothers says, “My soul was kind of humming,” after she gave her son up for adoption. That feeling of the hum, that’s what the edit feels as well. There’s a hum we’re seeking when we’re finding the places to take a breath or to keep it moving.

Motherhood is often equated with nature in ways that can be oppressive, as if it is a natural responsibility for women. In Earth Mama you’re pushing against this trope by highlighting how Black women are forced into—or out of—becoming mothers irrespective of their circumstances, but you also show us the liberation that Gia feels amid nature. 

I was thinking about the lineage and ancestry of Black women—the trauma you may carry, but also the strength of being connected to your child, to your mother, to your grandmother. I was thinking about the trees in the Bay Area and how they communicate underground. The redwoods live in communities, which is a wild thing, and their roots talk to each other. There’s something really liberating about knowing you have a group of people behind you—a group of mothers, Black women, who have struggled and persisted, and are still here and still going. I was thinking about how that can be an escape, knowing that you are part of something bigger than yourself.

We talked to Boots Riley on the Film Comment Podcast about his new series, I Am a Virgo, and about how one might define Bay Area cinema. What you just said about redwoods was really beautiful. Maybe that’s a feature of Bay Area cinema. 

He actually was one of the first people who encouraged me to write!

Wow! How so?

I volunteered at the San Francisco Film Festival before I became a filmmaker. I went up to him one time and told him I really liked a short film of his. We met for coffee, and he told me about the script for Sorry to Bother You. He was going to the Sundance Lab. He told me, “All you gotta do is write. If you have nothing else, you have to write, and you have to write yourself. Every day, just do it.” And that’s how it started.