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Savanah Leaf’s ‘Earth Mama’ is an alluringly composed love letter to Black mothers and the systems they have to conquer

Gia is a 24-year-old single mother fighting for custody of her two children while preparing for a newborn on the way.

Gabriel Saravia / A24

The first person we see in writer/director Savanah Leaf's full-length feature, Earth Mama, is a woman speaking in a room of expectant mothers. She says, “You could hold my hand, but you’ll never know how I feel. Everybody has an opinion and judges me like their God.” This scene is important when we start to learn the story of our main character, Gia (Tia Nomore), who tries to do her best in a world that provides her with opportunities and roadblocks to contact them at the same time directly. She’s a Black single mother who lives in the Bay Area and works in a photo shop in a mall. Gia is expecting a child. At 24, she already has two younger children who ended up in the foster care system.

Although we don’t get much about Gia's backstory, there’s enough shown to the audience in the present day to understand more about the difficulties of her situation. Upon visiting her young son and daughter, she speaks to someone on a prepaid cellphone with a declining balance, Gia’s card gets declined when she tries to get her children both a gift, and there’s a matter of trying to get them back. It’s cumbersome in itself. For Gia to start the reunification process, she has to go to mandated classes, which will take away from earning an income.

Oh, but of course, she has to make a certain amount of money to demonstrate her household will meet an income threshold. Now, how in the hell will somebody meet all of that criteria to bring their children home eventually? It’s almost impossible, but Leaf tailors this heartbreak with quiet moments of contemplation within a surrealistic backdrop of forests that are almost dreamlike in retrospect. Earth Mama, adapted from the 2021 fictional documentary short, which Leaf co-directed with Taylor Russell, fuses the will of a Black mother trying to right the ship of her life against many things working against her.

It’s not that the film takes the judgy viewpoint of what I stated earlier – if anything, the beauty exists because the audience gets to see things on the level that Gia does. That’s a credit to cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ shot selection of keeping things focused on the character’s facial expressions as they partake in difficult discussions. With Gia’s newborn on the way, she has a tough choice to make – does she try to keep the baby while mired in this fight for custody and continuing her drug addiction recovery, or does she give the baby up for adoption?

If Gia asks her best friend Trina (Doechii), it’s a hard no. Trina, who is also pregnant, is a word of encouragement to Gia, but it’s also steeped in religion that Gia can’t see. It might be a God-given right for a mother to be with her children, but given all that’s happened to Gia, how will she believe in a divine plan? Class counselor Miss Carmen (Erika Alexander) floated the idea for Gia to give her impending baby up for adoption – another Black family (Bokeem Woodbine and Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who tried to have a second child but could not. They have a teenager (Kami Jones) who reminds Gia a lot of herself when she was that age – they briefly discuss playing basketball and what position they play. But you can’t help to think how Gia’s life would have turned out if she had this support behind her.


Gia knows this may be the best route for her baby, but how can she trust Miss Carmen, who works for the departments that continually fail her, and perhaps indirectly concede that she’s not the mother she wanted to be? You want to prove everyone wrong and not right. Earth Mama has a lot of heaviness, but Leaf provides the audience with subtle interludes of Gia’s character in space that soften things just enough to give us and our focus a breather.

Leaf is aware of what some people might do. It’s a symptom of society to look at single mothers as less than automatically, and Gia is well aware of this. Throughout the film, the audience gets various looks at the backdrops of the photography place Gia works as an assistant. There are either loving families taking pictures of their newborn, a couple who is expecting, and a random man who speaks on how the adoption system caused him to live in an endless loop of negativity.

Even with the possible adoptive family, there are reminders around Gia of something she’s never got to experience. No wonder she turns slightly resentful, and Earth Mama can’t help you to realize that much of this is by design. Well, it is, and hopefully, we all can exhibit the gracefulness Leaf provides around Gia’s character.