SAVANAH LEAF, AND THE STORIES OF BLACK WOMEN THAT UNFOLD


SAVANAH LEAF

SAVANAH LEAF, AND THE STORIES OF BLACK WOMEN THAT UNFOLD

words by JoliAmour DuBose-Morris
image by Kohshin Finley

“It takes a village to raise a child.” This is a quote we hear frequently. Many of our mothers have used it, and many of our mothers have needed this quote to relieve the stress they carried when doing everything independently. Savanah Leaf and I tackle this phrase, misogynoir, Black female power, and the conversation of motherhood—how it tackles, sacrifices, and gives with completion. Leaf is one of many things—an English-American film director, a former professional athlete, and a daughter. The order of those identities varies, but they’re all a part of what makes Savanah Leaf who she is. 

Our conversation begins at Ludlow House on an early Wednesday morning. It’s the middle of April. It’s a few minutes past 10 AM, and the table is covered in half-filled glasses of water and a bowl of fruit pushed to the wall. I’m flipping through scribbled questions on an index notepad, and the creative sits back—relaxed—legs crossed, black bomber jacket and beanie combination going, and Adidas, the Wales Bonner kind. After a moment of silence, I press record. 

What brings us to this table dates back to the film Earth Mama, which debuted at the Sundance Festival on January 20th, 2023. Later that year, it was released in the United States on July 7th of the same year. This film is something ornately special. It makes the audience sit up with intention, ears, and eyes open to a story that navigates something past the mere works of fiction. It’s heavy with emotion that matches the generational scars of many Black women—single Black women, surviving Black women, single Black mothers, surviving Black mothers—and the perils we go through from having to meet society’s apathetic expectations. A constant pushback from the government to do it all, and take it all because of our strength—which isn’t always vigilant intentionally, but because sometimes we’re not given a choice.

Earth Mama’s story unravels with the protagonist Gia, played by Tia Nomore, who works at a picture store where they take family photos. She’s many months pregnant, with two children she sees on an appointment basis with supervised visitation. As her children struggle from the inability to see her often, Gia contemplates whether or not she should provide her unborn child with a different fate. In a person versus self-conflict, her tribulations of motherhood face the debate of what “a good life” really looks like. Is being a mother raising your child, or giving them away? The supporting characters of Tia, Miss Carmen (played by Erika Alexander), and Trina (played by Doechii) emulate the two different sides of the coin. Yet, regardless, the biggest argument this film offers is why our community doesn’t offer more support for mothers. Why does Gia even have to fathom that her motherhood isn’t worthy because of a society that has stripped her of the resources to provide the way she’s supposed to?

When you watch Earth Mama, you see your own mother’s struggles. The victories. The lessons. The fight, and survival. Earth Mama may be a story that many of us can resonate with, but only Savanah Leaf could tell it the way she did. In our interview, she begins with her origin. She said, “I was born in London. I grew up with my mom and kind of like this street and the whole street has a lot of different mothers that were raising their kids, like my neighbor, my neighbors I’m still friends with. And it was a single mom raising her daughter. So it felt almost like all the mothers on the street were raising each other’s kids. So there was that support system in London, and I think that was specific to my experience in London.” 

This experience that Leaf had, being a part of the village, and being raised by many mothering figures is an exact reference to the inspiration behind Earth Mama. As her childhood—split up between both London and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose)—she’s tender to the experience of seeing so many women use each other as an anchor to stay afloat.


“I think my biggest goal was mainly to kind of shed light on—maybe shed light is the wrong term—I wanted people to maybe feel less alone in their journey through motherhood. And that can take many forms. It can be in the form of Gia, it can be in the form of Monica, the adoptive mother. It could be in the form of even Miss Carmen who’s kind of this—she’s almost like an adopted mother to all the mothers. And I think it was for people to feel less alone on their journey and then also for people to open their eyes to what might be going on, maybe within their own family or a hand reached away from them. I think what’s been interesting [about] releasing this movie is what I thought might be so specific to the Bay, to the people in this movie.” Leaf declared. 

Leaf spoke about how when the film premiere ended, many people used this experience to discuss their battles with motherhood. “I’ve realized so many people have not discussed that they gave their child up when they were younger and it’s kind of become this very taboo thing and they just keep it to themselves. And you never know what someone’s going through, what someone’s had to keep inside of them for so many years. And I think that’s been a really special side of this whole release—of this movie—is enabling people to feel comfortable speaking about what they’ve been through or maybe their family member has been through or friends have been through.” 

Throughout our conversation, we spoke about just the essence of film, and her favorite directors. As Leaf’s prior background crosses over to sports and competition—a pro-volleyball player, competing for Great Britain at the Olympics in 2012, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball was an essential movie to Leaf as she was growing up, “I remember seeing that and just being like–I probably watched that a billion times and saw it. I must have been in middle school and I was really getting into basketball. Basketball was my sport. I didn’t love volleyball, I loved basketball. And I was thinking that I could play in college and that could pay for my tuition. It kind of opened my eyes to the potential of sports in a way. It’s not like it is today. I am so jealous of kids today because they can latch onto college players and pro players through Instagram and the media. And I thought it was so dope [the film]. I loved the ending where she was the star. It was her story. She’s the hooper and he was raising the kid at the end, and I thought that was so great, so empowering for me.” She pondered.

As much as Love and Basketball is one of the films to have shaped Black culture, 90s Black rom-coms, Black everything—it’s often easy to forget the filmmaker that made it. Leaf spoke about how many of the films she loved as a kid, she was unaware that they were made by women who looked like her. Black women are often left invisible to the film conversation because of the long-lasting imprint of men over the industry. When discussing the advice given to her when making the film, she said, “I feel like I probably got so much advice from men telling me how to do this.

I don’t know if many of them were that useful because there were a lot of men who thought you don’t know anything or they thought you need to be taught. And so maybe the best advice I got was translating other athletes’ advice into the film world or translating musician’s advice into the film world, the writer’s advice into the film world or reading. I remember reading books by a woman named Judith Weston and seeing how she interpreted things and how she would say that directors should feel enabled to trust their intuition. So that has been the greatest piece of advice. Most of the people, most of the other directors that have advised on the way, have said, “If you don’t get your way, you should just yell and [be loud]. And that’s not my personality at all. And I was like, “Yeah, it works for an old white guy, but if I walk in the room and start yelling like that, I don’t know if I get the same response as you.” So it’s been interesting trying to figure out what advice to take and what will work for me.”

Leaf doesn’t have to mirror the mannerisms of privileged men, because the goal in her filmmaking process isn’t to acquire power, but to spread awareness—love, empathy, conversation—all within the name of Black people, women, families, and communities. 

Even though she may be the director, Leaf still gets to reflect on the film as just a daughter, as well. “I think it’s [Earth Mama] just allowed me more space to listen to different mothers and listen to my mother and gain sympathy and empathy all around. I think that’s generally the feeling, there’s no one specific thing. I think that’s what’s transformed me, more than just listening.” As our conversation comes to a close—the recording coming to a stop—the stories of Black women carry on forever, and Savanah Leaf will be one of the lasting filmmakers to ensure it.