‘I don’t need a gold star to tell me I’m a good mom!’, says Gia (Tia Nomore) in Savannah Leaf’s striking debut drama. But what is a ‘good mom’? How does society even measure such a thing? ‘Daddy issues’ get disproportionate airtime on screen, but it’s not often we get to experience the full plurality of motherhood in all its meanings. And especially not in such a powerful, realistic portrayal of single motherhood within a marginalised community of colour.
Leaf, a former Olympic volleyball player, has constructed something truly impressive from the building blocks of her own 2020 short film The Heart Still Hums (co-directed with Bones and All actress Taylor Russell). She integrates perspectives of class and race – as well as legacy and roots – to show how a draining welfare system is stacked against so many moms.
Often light on dialogue, it gives brief snapshots of the life of 24-year-old Bay Area mother Gia. Heavily pregnant, she struggles to balance work with her court-mandated parenting classes, while striving to keep her family together. To compound her worries, she’s behind on foster care payments and is only allotted an hour a week with her children in a room with no windows – all under the watchful eye of a social worker. When she isn’t attending drug recovery and parent groups, ironically she’s working at a portrait studio, where she helps families create memories and observes various lives outside of the system Gia grew up in. Heartbreakingly, her desperation to shore up her own family leads her to consider putting her baby up for adoption.
A vital but all-too-rare exploration of Black motherhood struggling on the margins
Respite for Gia comes in the California countryside and its redwood forests, captured by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ softly lit 16mm photography. Roots and the soil offer vivid visual metaphors for the importance of the maternal bond. Even as Gia gives birth, she holds on to her umbilical cord as a final tie to her child.
Rapper-turned actor Nomore is stellar as Gia, a woman whose occasional unlikability only amplifies her humanity. Even as wide shots depicting her story seem to focus on day-to-day activities, such as friends eating a takeaway, looming in the background is the reality of a half-built crib and piles of unpaid bills.
Humane to the last, Earth Mama is a vital but all-too-rare exploration of Black motherhood struggling on the margins of American society. Hopefully, there’ll be many more to come.
In UK cinemas Dec 8.