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The Lessons of the Boondock Saints and Tanya Lewis Lee

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by Courtroom Mama

I recently took a vacation from the internet. It was nice because, apart from letting me do things with my non-kid time like going to the gym so my preschooler can stop asking me if “there’s a baby in there,” I got to step back for a moment and look at things from a perspective other than that of the bloggy echo chamber. Two things that I did that ended up having a surprising connection:

  1. Watched “The Boondock Saints” for probably the fifteenth time, and
  2. At Jill’s suggestion, finally saw Tonya Lewis Lee’s 2009 documentary, “Crisis in the Crib: Saving Our Nation’s Babies”

I know, right? But hang with me for a moment. For those who haven’t seen these movies: the former is a quirky shoot-em-up action film about a pair of Irish twins (pun intended, I’m sure) who bring vigilante justice to South Boston, the latter is a documentary about the crisis of infant mortality in the black community by Tonya Lewis Lee, wife of director Spike Lee, for the Office of Minority Health’s Healthy Baby Begins with You Campaign.

The lightbulb went off in the beginning of the movie (transcript below)

Monsignor: And I am reminded, on this holy day, of the sad story of Kitty Genovese. As you all may remember, a long time ago, almost thirty years ago, this poor soul cried out for help time and time again, but no person answered her calls. Though many saw, no one so much as called the police. They all just watched as Kitty was being stabbed to death in broad daylight. They watched as her assailant walked away. Now, we must all fear evil men. But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.

Connor: I do believe the monsignor’s finally got the point.

Murphy: Aye.

I have to admit that I put off seeing “Crisis in the Crib” for a long time. Because I knew it would be sad? Because I fancied myself some sort of expert on the issue? Because it seems so far away from my own experience? Who knows. But when Jill sent me a Google Blog Search for “Crisis in the Crib,” my heart stopped for a moment: nearly none of the blogs that I read had covered it. 

We’re not talking “my indie film video store doesn’t carry Braveheart.” We’re talking about the very set of people who should be writing about infant mortality—mostly birthy blogs, feminist blogs, and mothering blogs—didn’t mention the film.  Sure, there were some; for example, Elita at Blacktating did a quick hit as a part of her Happy Black Girl Day list of “black girls who understand the importance of birth autonomy, breastfeeding and natural parenting.” I don’t read All the Blogs in the World, and maybe I’m not reading the “right” stuff, but it makes me sad to know that I have 1000+ unread items in my Google Reader, probably 3/4 of those about birth or mothering, and none of them will have mentioned the film.

I know that on its face this looks like a classic example of the anti-feminist trope, “Why are you concentrating on X when Y is so much more important?” Nevertheless, the issues are so intertwined that it seems almost disingenuous to call one a crisis without acknowledging the other.

I’m thinking back to a couple of reports that came out within the last six months: Amnesty International’s “Deadly Delivery” and the other a report on maternal mortality in California. Both of them revealed breathtaking defects in our maternity care system, and upped the volume on a meme that is one of my pet peeves: “it is more dangerous to give birth here than it is in [insert country].”

Setting aside for a moment the Americocentrism (what’s the matter with Slovakia, anyway?), I think that many of us birth bloggers are guilty of some tone deafness. The maternal and infant mortality rates are not borne equally across races.

Here is the most recent data from Shelby County, TN, where much of the film was set:

It’s like the white babies are born in the U.S., and the black babies are born in a whole other place (the CIA Factbook 2010 projections say the Solomon Islands). Here, more than anywhere else, it is clear that there are two Americas.

Watching “Crisis in the Crib,” I could see the water I swim in for a moment and realized that I sometimes have “birth blinders” on.  I care so much about unnecessary interventions and evidence-based care that it’s tempting to look at our flagging position in rank for maternal and infant health and say “see! It’s the unnecesareans and the pitocin and the EFM!” But the truth, as the documentary shows, is more complicated. The truth is a story that is so big and so awful that it crushes blogs under its tires and we can’t look at it for fear of turning to stone: we live in a nation where the legacy of slavery and segregation is a permanent invisible underclass.  Mothers and babies are dying, and I, for one, am not caring enough about it.

So here is my challenge to you (yes, you!) to change that sorry Google Blog Search with a mini blog carnival. If you haven’t seen the film already, you can watch it here in WMV firmat. It’s just about half an hour long, so you can watch it while you’re nursing or folding laundry or plotting to take over the world.  Then write a blog post about any aspect of the film or the topic that tickles your fancy. Comment to this post with a link to your post (or any post you’ve previously written about the movie) by July 2, and on July 4, I’ll repost our favorite along with links to all submissions.

Happy writing!

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Reader Comments (40)

Kick ass post. Can't wait to see the film and discuss. Thanks for putting it out there!

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnother Rachel

I actually wrote about Tonya's work another time, when she made a promo for the campaign, "A Healthy Baby Begins With You." I was pissed that the spot talked about getting prenatal care, putting your baby "back to sleep," but never mentioned breastfeeding. http://www.blacktating.com/2009/02/healthy-baby-begins-with-you.html

I went on a recent sponsored blogging junket and met another blogger named Nichelle Stephens who lives in NYC. She had attended a screening of Crisis in the Crib along with a few other invited bloggers of color. I wasn't invited & I don't live in NYC but I told her I really wanted to see the doc. She had plans to help host Mother's Day screenings in various cities across the country this year and I told her I definitely wanted to hold one in South Florida. Not sure if it ever happened, but if it did, no one ever notified me.

Anyway, another blogger wrote about her experience seeing the documentary. http://mommyfactor.blogspot.com/2010/02/tonya-lewis-lee-crisis-in-crib.html

I'll be honest with you, I had forgotten about it. I was never able to get my hands on a copy and you know, out of sight, out of mind. I had no idea it was available online, but I am wondering if that may be a recent addition to the website. I am definitely going to check it out now that I know it's online, so thanks for letting me know. I appreciate you hosting a blog Carnival about this and I am going to publicize it on my blog and Facebook fan page as well. I'll be REALLY interested to see who takes part because my Google reader is full of a lot of birth blogs, too.

Oh, and even though this was filmed a couple of years ago and in TN, this is a huge problem across the country. There was a recent article in a Milwaukee paper saying black babies are worse off there than babies born in developing countries like Sri Lanka and an article in the NY Times from a day or so ago stated that black women are 7x as likely to die in childbirth than white women in NY State. A HUGE problem, so yes, why aren't we talking about it more?

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterElita {Blacktating}

YES. This.

I'll be watching and writing. Thanks for giving me the kick in the ass to do so.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKristen

Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention. Among the gazillion of blogs I subscribe to, none ever mentioned this either (including some black breastfeeding/pregnancy blogs). Hope I can get to see the movie soon. I'll have to convince my husband to delay watching the next episode of Lost. Might be a tough battle..

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRixa

For this, I can suck it up, ignore my exhaustion, morning sickness and extreme desire to lay on the couch all day a mope! Thanks for writing this post Court Room Mama! I look forward to reading the other blogs about this as well.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPatrice

I haven't seen the film yet, but I wanted to submit an earlier piece I wrote on this very topic just in case life happens.


Great topic and I am glad to participate.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKarianna

I would love to participate in this carnival. Unfortunately I'm having trouble viewing the film because I don't have Windows. I look forward to reading the carnival posts though.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNavelgazingBajan

As for raising awareness, the film gets an A+, and since I think that was its intended purpose, I'll try not to be too hard on it. But raising awareness is only ever step one.

One thing in particular bothered me about the film. Disparity doesn't always equal racism. Racism would imply that someone is intentionally sabotaging or neglecting mothers on the basis of their race. I haven't seen any evidence of that happening. Maybe it is, but I haven't seen the evidence. Innocent until proven guilty. That said, obviously the disparity is a big problem, and what ever factors contribute to the disparity occur more often in colored communities. I think my major disappointment with the film was that I wanted to see a list of possible reasons why this disparity exists. Maybe no such list exists and we really have no idea. It makes me really want to find out though!

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

it has been shown repeatedly that White [medical] providers treat patients of color differently (as in a bad way). that is disparity=racism

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

Health disparities are one of the most troubling, persistent, and difficult to tackle problems in public health. A lot of people really do care. Health professionals dedicate their lives to reducing disparities. Academic departments are set up to study the causes and consequences of health disparities (Maryland, http://medschool.umaryland.edu/minorityhealth.asp; Michigan, http://www.sph.umich.edu/ciahd/; Hopkins, http://www.jhsph.edu/healthdisparities/). The CDC has a department devoted to eliminating health disparities and so does just about every major medical and public health organization. Yet, change is so incredibly slow. Why? What can we DO about it? Who is succeeding (Jennie Joseph is one that comes to mind!)?

Thanks for organizing this blog carnival. I'm looking forward to reading.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca S
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