Meet Haimy Assefa, Whose Film Black Birth Is a 'Love Letter' to Black Mothers
Black Birth, which Haimy Assefa filmed while pregnant during the pandemic, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival
As a documentary filmmaker and journalist, Haimy Assefa is used to working behind the scenes. But when it came time for one of the most deeply personal experiences of her life — her journey into motherhood — Assefa, 35, stepped in front of the camera, pulling double duty as both a star and the creator of the short film Black Birth.
The statistics are startling: Black women in the U.S. are two to three times more likely than white women to die of pregnancy-related causes. By featuring herself on screen, Assefa tells PEOPLE she hopes to help her audience connect more to the subject matter — in all its tragedies and triumphs.
"We don't typically put ourselves in the story. We aren't the story," she says. "It wasn't an easy decision, but in some ways it was the obvious decision for me. I was thinking about, 'OK, how do I still tell a story that is touching, that's impactful, that's cinematic and hits all these marks?' I think being pregnant and it being personal and it being something that I could speak to made it an easier decision."
Black Birth, which recently debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of The Queen's Collective Shorts Initiative, a partnership with Queen Latifah, Tribeca Studios and Procter & Gamble, follows the journeys of three Black expectant mothers, each with a story all their own.
Assefa and her husband, Antwan Rucker, are expecting their first child, while the film's other two stars are adding to their brood: Season and her husband are already raising a son with autism, while Tamika, a single mom, is expecting her third child.
The Brooklyn-based, Ethiopian-American Assefa says she'd had maternal mortality and the racial disparity that comes with it on the brain for several years, and had been mulling over different ways to cover it when she was approached to pitch a film treatment.
"It was a no-brainer at that point," she says. "Being a Black woman that knew I wanted to have children someday, it just always was in the back of my mind, if not at the forefront, whenever I was actually thinking about having a baby. As a journalist, it's a story that I wanted to tell for a while. I hadn't had the chance to really focus on its impact on Black women."
Several poignant scenes lay bare the unique struggles Black women face, including one instance in which Tamika breaks down in tears over concerns that her OB-GYN is not listening to her.
"I could relate to that," Assefa says. "I feel I've been in doctor's offices where I don't feel like they're listening, I don't feel they're asking the right questions. I don't think that I'm always being taken very seriously. Hopefully we get to a point where it's not on the woman to come in armed with a team of people to have her back, but that it's just a given."
In other scenes, animated sequences help portray more difficult topics of discussion, such as police brutality and the concept of "weathering," which refers to the implications of long-term stress over racism.
With Black Birth, Assefa says her goal was two-fold: yes, she wanted to draw awareness to the struggles pregnant Black women face, but she also wanted to shine a light on the other side; the love and affection and pure joy that comes with motherhood.
In her case, it's a joy she shares with Rucker, and many tender moments between the couple are put on display in the 20-minute film.
"I think it's important to see Black people in love and pregnant and happy as well as seeing and understanding the challenges that go into that," she says. "I've had so many people just say, 'Thank you for telling this story.' And not just from a place of loss and trauma, because what I think [that statistic] does is it scares us. It scares Black women. I was scared, even just the idea of, okay, what's going to happen when I'm ready to have a baby? And that's a terrible way to go into an experience that ideally is joyful."
Black Birth — which Assefa calls "a labor of love, no pun intended" — was filmed between February and April of this year, and Assefa's son Tizita was born in late April, just three days before her own birthday.
Being pregnant in a pandemic while filming a movie is no easy feat, but Assefa says having Tamika and Season on board to share the experience with "lightens the load" — and that her end goal is to have created something special specifically for women like them.
"Several people have reached out saying that it brought them to tears watching onscreen. Some people have said getting to see Black love on screen was really special for them and they don't get to see that very much," she says. "At the end of the day, this was really a love letter to Black women and Black mothers. It's really nice to see that come to fruition."