Earth Mama stands tall as a film that not only holds the attention of its audiences but also ignites a conversation about the significance of women’s voices in healthcare. Produced by visionary studio A24, this thought-provoking project ventures into uncharted territory, shedding light on the challenges faced by women of color in healthcare and social services. I had the privilege of sitting down with talented actresses Erika Alexander and Tia Nomore alongside emerging director Savanah Leaf to explore the themes of Earth Mama and the urgent need for authentic representation in the healthcare landscape.
Dapper Dr. Feel (DDF): Savanah, this movie was based on your short film, The Hearts Still Hums, and explores the intersection of art and motherhood. How were you able to focus on that in this film?
Savanah Leaf (SL): I guess from an art perspective, I was thinking about how to tell this story in a way that I think people would receive it and not be manipulated into the narrative. I was thinking about how we can tell the story with a visual language that’s observing real life as much as possible and not intruding on that life’s circumstances. But also telling it with grace and making people heroes of their own stories no matter what they are going through or doing in their lives. So we created a visual language which allowed our actors to kind of only have to do the performance once rather than repeating it many times and just kind of having one frame or one camera angle…just doing the whole scene from start to finish rather than chopping it up. So that’s kind of from an art perspective how I tried to bring art into it.
And motherhood, it was part of the story from day one, I was thinking a lot about my sister’s birth mother and how much she impacted and inspired me in such a short period of time. I was thinking about mothers in general and what they give their children and what their children don’t want to take with them, the trauma they’re trying to break away from. So from the heart of the story, motherhood was there, and then it just kind of expanded with every person that got involved and how they brought themselves into the story.
DDF: My next question is for Tia and Erika. Erika, you’re a seasoned vet, I know you’ve done your research on this. And Tia, you have a close connection because you were a new mother at the time, plus you had some background training as a doula. What was your approach to these characters you played in the film? What are some details about their relationship?
Tia Nomore (TN): I think that Gia and Ms. Carmen are constantly trying to learn from each other and are disappointed in each other. But it’s all reflective, and it is just an awesome energy exchange, I think, for me. There are a lot of similarities on camera and off camera between both of us, and yes, it is just synergetic and growing all the time, so it keeps you wondering where that relationship’s gonna go.
Most of my research came from the literature that Savannah was lending me. [Also] I had a friend who had two kids when we were 16, and I had called her and just said, “You know, I never apologized for kind of just disconnecting with you at that time ’cause I didn’t know how to show up for you”.
In a lot of ways, it was a lot of self-preservation and healing that came about in the research as well. Savanah would call it emotional research. I think I really had to get in the rubble with it.
Erika Alexander (EA): Yeah, I think that my relationship with Tia is organic, but I also knew because of my past and sort of knowing my way around the set that it was my job to stay out of her way. That I wasn’t there to tell her what to do, and that if she wanted or had questions, she might see them within me. And I also knew that she was mature enough to ask if she didn’t. Also, she was the most mature person on set as far as I was concerned, because she’s extremely bright and just genius-level smart, but also she was a mother and she was having a different experience than me in that I could play one, but I had not been one.
I also needed to take lessons from her. She would give me my cues. The other thing was that the assignment from Savanah was for us to feel, and she got that in spades because we were opening up Pandora’s box. You know, everybody’s going around a very sensitive space. Tia was a new mother, she wasn’t with her daughter. That’s difficult already, but now you’re in a space where you don’t get to control anything, and you’re around people who wanna control everything. So I just wanted to have fun, and I kept trying to tell myself that I was given the opportunity to watch people be born.
They were all seasoned, as far as I’m concerned. So as for Tia, Doechii, and some of the new actors that Savannah found, they were all leaders in their own categories.
I thought to myself that I’m probably doing the most performance work here, and they’re authentically creating that. But the truth is, my mother and father were orphans. My mother was a social worker and my sister is a social worker who was, for many years, in adoption.
So I had that as research and frankly I think those things are inherited in your bones and your DNA. Then you allow yourself to explore and live in them because Ms. Carmen must keep herself in a different space. She’s not supposed to be their friend, and yet she’s supposed to help them figure out what the most important question is in their life. And you can’t do that unless you love them. So she loves them on a level, but she’s, I’m sure, also frustrated with them because she wants them to do the right thing so they can get on with their lives and have the fun they deserve, their anonymity, and not have to ask for permission to live their lives. But they can’t in this system. So that’s the heartbreaking thing. She’s trying to make them navigate a system that she knows is set against them, and yet this is the way. So that’s difficult, but there you go.
DDF: This movie is very emotionally heavy. What are some activities you guys took part in to have fun on set?
Tia: You know, Gia is quite athletic, Tia is not, but there were times when Savanah and I would just go to the park and shoot hoops. You know what I mean? There were times when Doechii and I would just cat off and just dance together. Like, I gotta feel this or, you know, go for a walk with one another. Miss Erica is hella funny all the time, so she’s always providing a space of comic relief. After going through something really difficult (like an intense scene), we were embraced. I remember the first time getting physical with one another and I was just like “grab her, come back here. I’m so sorry I pushed you that hard”. We love each other, so it was a fun loving experience as well and we knew that we had to take care of ourselves and one another after doing something intense.
DDF: Wait, wait, wait! So who won between you and Savanah?
TN: Oh, we weren’t like hooping like that, like we were just shooting around. I’m terrible. There was not a one-on-one. We were just shooting.
EA: It was unfair. It’s stacked against her (Tia). She’s up against an Olympian, and no one is winning up against an Olympian.
DDF: I don’t know. Hey, Tia could have a mean crossover on her.
EA: No, come on. That’s why she said “let’s go play hoops”, so she could go dominate and be on the court.
You have to understand, we laughed our asses off. I mean, at least I certainly did. I was fascinated with all the really amazing young talent. We were out there together and often in the holding spaces just having a good time. They were so thankful and grateful to have the opportunity to be there. And so it was just a place of love. But I do have to say that if you go on hair and makeup, there was a lot of fun in there.
You know, our crew was wonderful. I mean, truly it was a really wonderful space…a heavy subject, but the space was light. And that was intentionally formed from who Savanah chose to be in that space.
SL: I gotta say it was really heavy. I didn’t realize until making it how much receiving of people’s pain or suffering I was doing. And so a lot of times, I didn’t really wanna joke around. To be honest, sometimes I just needed space to sleep or eat some good food and those were the lighter moments for me because it was a sort of recovery period I needed. There were scenes where I’m literally sitting next to the camera, receiving women’s stories and feeling them weep and be upset. Even with Tia, she’s going through a lot emotionally and afterwards, I would need to take time for myself too. I know that’s not probably what you wanted to hear. I wasn’t really joking around as much as maybe other people were. My lighter moments were me taking time for myself.
DDF: This film tackles themes of healing, growth and community. How do you hope that Earth Mama can contribute to larger conversations about these topics and inspire change?
SL: For me, I really hope that this can spark a lot of conversation between people. I think it’s been really interesting hearing people after screenings and hearing unexpected stories from unlikely places and realizing that so many people are connected by this story.
I hope that it sparks some conversations between friends and family members, so it’s not as uncomfortable to talk about. I think that it ultimately leads to more empathy and pulling away judgment.
EA: Well, let me say what’s done in the dark shall come to light. And Savanah gave us light into a space that very few people are looking. I think if you can illuminate space, that means that now we’re responsible for that information. And that’s a huge, big deal because I had no idea; even though I knew these systems existed, I didn’t know it existed like this. It breaks my heart because people have their attitudes and point of view about many things, but we don’t know what we’re talking about. One of my favorite scenes is when Tia’s just taking a portrait of a family. That’s such a beautiful scene. I love it. I knew I would love it on the page, but I saw it (in my mind). Savanah, I did. And to me she’s isolated. They’re having an experience that she’s denied and she can take a picture of it, but she can’t get it. You know how cruel that is? It’s deep, and every day we’re asking people to have these dreams of what it is to have a family, all these shows on TV about family and loyalty and all that stuff, and there are so many people who are far away from it, and it feels so cruel.
To show them that’s also part of the American dream is the propaganda that we feed each other about how our lives should be. Then you look under the hood, and then you have a point of view about it, and you say, “Oh, that person’s lazy” and that’s not true.
They had a certain set of circumstances that most people will never have, and yet we look at them rise, look at them overcome, look at them exist, because sometimes that’s all you can do. It’s so powerful. That’s why Earth’s mama. Wow. That’s why that name is powerful too.
TN: Wow. Wow, wow. Ate it up. No crumbs. You know, I am a Black woman. I’m a Black mother. I come from a Black family. I really would love for everyone to just consider us in ways that we’ve never been considered before. You know? We are—so precious and sacred people. I think that we should be cared after in a way I’ve never seen before. I think maybe I’d have to leave the country to see it, maybe on the route. And that’s all we know is, you know, loving, caring, community, organizing, resource, lending, and giving. Naturally. I think that’s what we do for one another in any space or community. We help to coagulate. So, I really want us to learn how to navigate and take up all the space that we need so that we can get what we deserve. I want to see all of us walking and stepping in a little bit more seriously into these roles of responsibility and allyship and all of this, all of this that has to do with the Gia’s in the world and, you know, seeing them more and not looking away.
You know, you see someone on the street, we look away. Sometimes it’s just looking at somebody and saying, “I don’t really have anything for you, but I definitely see you, and I could just wish you the best right now.” That carries people eons. But simply looking away, I think I’m over that, and I think that this movie forces us to look deeper.
Even Gia, she’s quite avoidant of the camera, you know, she’s quite avoidant of what it is she’s showing, you know what I mean? I want everybody to feel that intensity and walk beside us more.
Erica Alexander, Tia Nomore, and director Savanah Leaf have brought to life the stories of women who have long been silenced, sparking a collective awakening to the importance of women’s voices in healthcare and the social work system. Make sure to catch Earth Mama in theaters July 14th.