film essay for "All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story"


1 All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story By Joshua Glick In George C. Stoney’s expansive oeuvre that in- cludes over eighty films, one of his earliest features, “All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story” (1953), stands out. A distinct achievement in the field of edu- cational cinema, the award winning film exemplifies - the compassionate, socially conscious approach to documentary that Stoney pursued during his career. Salem, North Carolina in 1916, Born in Winston - Stoney cultivated a passion for engaged observation through his experiences writing articles on the poll tax and the Tennessee Valley Authority for the mag- e y G r a p h i c ” a n d c o n d u c a i n g f i e l d w o r k w i t h z i n e “ S u r v t Ralph Bunche and Gunnar Myrdal for the sweeping sociological study on black life in the United States, The face of “All My Babies”: midwife Mary Francis “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Hill Coley better known as Miss Mary. Courtesy Modern Democracy.” After serving as a photo intelli- DocuFilms. gence officer in Europe during World War II, Stoney innovative techniques in modern obstetrics used by a moved into filmmaking, joining the Southern Educa- Chicago maternity center. Stoney also drew from two tional Film Production Service in 1946. He made a niche for himself in the burgeoning market of educa- short films he recently made for the Georgia Depart- tional films, sponsored by private associations, cor- ment of Public Health. The first, “Palmour Street: A porations, and government agencies. Study of Family Life” (1949), concentrated on mental health and social development within black families “All My Babies” was a project of the Georgia Depart- in Gainesville. The second, “Concept of Maternal and Visual Division Neonatal Care” (1951), explored the incorporation of ment of Public Health and the Audio - safety precautions of a hospital environment into of the Association of American Medical Colleges. home pregnancy. They hired Stoney to make a documentary to edu- cate doctors, midwives, schools, and health depart- ments about midwifery in the black community of ru- In addition to communicating its teaching objectives, ral Georgia. Midwives performed a valuable function “All My Babies” transcends its pedagogical purpose. in the region. The film aimed to share best practices The film offers a portrait of the local African American midwife Mary Francis Hill Coley (“Miss Mary”). Ston- of the profession and Stoney was tasked with com- ey establishes the importance of the medical and municating 118 points. These points focused on pre- natal care and delivery techniques, incorporating fa- civic role midwives play in their community. Depicting the protagonist as a professional, respected by her thers and siblings into the birthing process, and man- aging the relationship between the midwife and pub- colleagues and the white medical establishment, was bold at a time when the South was highly segregated lic health specialists. Reflecting on the project in the and unequal. late 1950s, Stoney fondly remembered the freedom he was given to craft the film according to his own Stoney partnered with the local African American how sensibility: “[N]o one was telling me I should doctor William Mason to gain the trust of both blacks convey these points, what my story line should be, and whites in the area. Convincing the local newspa- whom where I should shoot, I should cast.” per to do a profile on the documentary as well as Stoney shot “All My Babies” in Albany, Georgia at a gaining the support of the progressive black pastor cost of $45,000. He was inspired by the recent Italian Bishop Noah, whose Church of the Kingdom of God Miss Mary belonged, was important for the PR of the neorealist films’ humanistic approach to working project. class subjects and was influenced by the National Film Board of Canada’s “Mental Mechanism” series and Pare Lorentz’s “The Fight for Life” (1940) about Stoney’s closet collaborator was Miss Mary herself.

2 She helped to plan and structure the film’s scenes. about midwifery, while also being acknowledged as an accomplishment of documentary artistry. When The documentary follows Miss Mary as she guides “All My Babies” was screened at Cinema 16 in New two women and their families through the latter stag- York, it was advertised as being included among the es of pregnancy and the birth. The former features a outstanding humanist works of the American cine- " couple that is proactive, prepared, and experienced, eager to heed the advice of Miss Mary and medical d for professional ma.” The documentary was screene er the U.S. and around the world. associations all ov personnel; the latter concentrates on a poorer house- hold. The couple is initially skeptical about following Health and medical organizations exhibited the film in the Middle East, and in South America. “All Europe, prepared for the - Miss Mary’s advice and they are ill coming of the baby. The idea was to film how a mid- ard in 1953. es” won the Special Flaherty Aw My Babi wife should prepare for ideal scenarios and dis- “All My Babies” propelled Stoney’s career towards tressed conditions. “All My Babies” shows Miss Mary social documentary projects within different institu- natal - as she accompanies each woman though pre tional contexts. Over the next six decades, he natal care. Miss Mary dis- - care, delivery, and post worked as a filmmaker, writer, teacher, and activist, cusses her motivations for her job and logic behind always exploring ways to expand the progressive po- her actions. The documentary portrays a devoted tential of documentary and engage new audiences. health care professional as well as offers a look into In addition to directing features for numerous profes- how deeply a community depends on and reveres sional associations, he founded Washington D.C. - midwives. based Potomac Films with Nicholas Read in 1954 While the film did involve a heavy amount of scripting - and the New York based Alternate Media Center with and staging, it was considered to be a documentary Red Burns in 1972. Stoney served as the Executive for the scenes were true to real life situations. The Producer for the Challenge for Change Program with events captured on camera happened in peoples’ the National Film Board of Canada in 1968 and daily lives. “All My Babies” thus followed the social taught production and history courses at New York documentary practice pioneered by Pare Lorentz and University beginning in 1970. He became one of Robert Flaherty, rather than the more “observational,” strongest advocates for public access television, - wall approach to documentary championed - the - on fly centered - working tirelessly to promote community by the group of filmmakers that formed Drew documentary up until his death at the age of 96. Associates in the early 1960s. Major scenes in “All Sources for this entry include: My Babies,” such as an extended birth sequence, All My Joshua Glick, “A Look Back at George Stoney’s are in fact clearly and directly presented, shown in ,” October 10, 2012, Docs in Progress, Babies http:// real time. Most of the individuals that appear in the - - george - at - back look - film are people playing themselves rather than actors - . babies/ - my all - stoneys playing types: thus, doctors play doctors, midwives Barbara Abrash, Lynne Jackson, and Cara Mertes, eds. “A play midwives, patients play patients. One of the few , 21:2 Festschrift in Honor of George Stoney,” Wide Angle prepared couple that lives in - exceptions is the ill (March 1999). harsh conditions. The woman was actually a student at Albany State College and her husband was Miss Brian Winston, “A Handshake or a Kiss’: The Legacy of Mary’s son. , 67:3 (2014): George Stoney (1916 - 2012),” Film Quarterly 35 49. - The music in “All My Babies” gives the film a lyrical George Stoney, “All My Babies: Research,” Film: Book 1, quality, endowing the actions of the individuals with , ed. Robert Hughes The Audience and the Filmmaker an added grace. Louis Applebaum’s score, per- (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1959), 82. formed by the Musical Art Chorus in Washington, D.C. heightens the sense of jubilance associated The views expressed in these essays are those of the author and do with childbirth. The soaring voices of the chorus over not necessarily represent the views of the Library of Congress. the beginning credits captivate viewers in the first couple seconds of the film. Additionally, the soft sing- Joshua Glick is Assistant Professor of English and Film ing of Miss Mary which she uses to keep time, pass Studies at Hendrix College. His articles have appeared in time, and put her patients at ease, foregrounds mu- Historical Journal Film History, The Moving Image , and the sic’s functional place in the birthing process. of Film, Radio and Television . Joshua recently collaborat- ed with the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art to plan Distributed by the Center for Mass Communication at and write the museum catalog for the traveling exhibition, Columbia, “All My Babies” achieved a level of recog- - “Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861 nition unusual for an educational film. The film was 2008.” He is currently completing a book manuscript on documentary media in Los Angeles. seen widely, accepted as a major resource to learn

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