UChicago scholar premieres documentary on racial health disparities

“The Fight for Black Lives” selected for Santa Barbara International Film Festival

In the United States, Black newborns are 2.5 times more likely to die than white newborns. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the mortality rate for Black mothers (and Black Americans in general) skyrocketed. UChicago Prof. Micere Keels recognized the gap between what research tell us and the media discourse.

“In every major health event, there are racial health disparities because there are core, underlying drivers in access to resources that allow us to recover when we get sick,” said Keels, who studies system inequities in UChicago’s Department of Comparative Human Development. “Yes, COVID matters. But if we keep talking about just this moment, we’re going to be back here again.”

Not interested in writing another paper fated to a shelf, Keels was driven to pick up a new educational tool—documentary filmmaking.

“The Fight for Black Lives” explores racial health disparities in the U.S. through personal stories of Black women who were pregnant during the first year of the pandemic, along with experts across the healthcare field. The film also shines a light on how Reconstruction-era policies still affect health outcomes today.

Directed by Keels, the documentary premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this February. The film will also screen on Feb. 23 at the Social Justice Now Film Festival.

Keels is also partnering with public health departments to screen the documentary for policymakers and community members, the first of which will be in Fairfax County.   

In the following edited Q&A, Keels delves into her inspiration, process and hopes for the film. 

What drove you to make a documentary?

I'd been looking at racial, ethnic and socio-economic disparities in child and adolescent outcomes. Health really wasn't a focus of my research. I knew that it mattered because you need health to take advantage of school and employment opportunities. But then the pandemic came along. It was COVID that pushed me to say: Okay, instead of writing a paper around health inequalities, let me do something very different.

I had already been on this path of trying to learn other forms of narrative communication, but still sharing the science. I think a documentary is a great way of sharing information that can get more access and traction with the general public.

Why did you choose to focus on infant and maternal health?

The racial disparity gap in maternal and infant health is fairly large.

One of the experts in the documentary says: Pregnancy is not a disease. Pregnancy is not a health problem. So, if you're seeing poor health outcomes among pregnant people and infants, it's that our system is not set up for their well-being. It's a vulnerable time, so if we are under stress, if we're not getting access to proper nutrition and care, if we are exposed to environmental toxins, and if our healthcare system is not set up to support us, then you are going to see these poor outcomes.

What’s something in the film that you think would surprise people?

The documentary came after I taught a class on racial health disparities in the fall of 2020. Working with those students gave me insight into how the general public was thinking about COVID, as if there was something unique about this moment.

One powerful thing for students is when I put up slides that have the information, but not the date. There's one that seems like it could be from today, but it’s actually from 1920. That really shifts their perspective when I can say: these disparities in health have not changed for over 100 years. All Americans are healthier and have improved, but our racial and ethnic and socio-economic gaps have not.

How did you choose who you wanted to see and hear from in the film?

This was a joyous opportunity to center and represent Black voices in telling this Black experience story. It stood out to me that, even when other documentaries were about issues of inequality, the experts often are white. It gave me the freedom to say, I'm going to just make sure all of my experts are Black.

We featured five Black women who had instances of medical and healthcare system mistreatment while pregnant during the pandemic. The context around their stories is provided by 13 Black female experts who not only understand the issue through a personal lens, but they are the leaders in their field on this topic. They bring not only a scientific understanding, but also a commitment to changing these outcomes.

What are you hoping someone takes away from the film?

For Black people in the U.S., my hope is that we continue shifting our language of self-blame. We often use the language of engaging in better health behaviors, which is important, but does your environment, your access to health care, support your efforts?

White and Black population differences in the U.S. are not because of a difference in the desire to engage in healthy behaviors. They are due to the extent to which you must circumvent many challenges in order to attain and maintain health.

Also, we can all have a critical lens on access to care. One woman featured in the film became a doula (Ed. note: a professional who provides support to expectant parents) to help other women. But it wasn’t until then that she realized, “Wait, why didn't anybody offer these services to me as I was going through this process?” She started asking her family members: ‘Have you ever heard of a doula? Have you ever heard of this resource?’ It's those critical conversations that I want people to be having.

What advice would you give to fellow academics interested in making a documentary about their research?

Increasingly, in this world of academic and institutional mistrust, we're going to have to be our own translators to directly reach the people that we want to impact. You have a lot of the tools in your toolbox already—qualitative and quantitative data gathering, critical analysis, etc.

It’s a whole new way of communicating, but I think investing in this skill is absolutely worth it if we want to move policy, move practice and create change out there in the world.