One of the most remarkable and revealing documentaries ever made in America came out this week on DVD with little fanfare or advance notice. "All My Babies: A Midwife's Own Story" (Image Entertainment, $24.99, not rated) introduces an unsung American heroine, Mary "Miss Mary" Coley, an African-American midwife who delivered nearly 4,000 babies in southern Georgia from the 1930s through the `60s.
Written, produced and directed in 1952 by George C. Stoney, "All My Babies" was made for the Georgia Department of Public Health as a training film for African-American midwives. It was part of an effort to reduce the high infant mortality rate in Georgia, particularly among the rural poor who seldom received regular medical care.
Yet the film's content _ for what it reveals about poverty in the Jim Crow era American South, for its startlingly graphic depiction of childbirth and for its recognition of one remarkable woman _ has given it lasting significance. In 2002, "All My Babies" was selected by the Library of Congress as a "culturally, historically and artistically significant work" and added for permanent preservation in the National Film Registry _ along with "The Gold Rush," "Gone With the Wind," "The Godfather" and other immortal works.
As Stoney, a white documentary filmmaker who later taught at NYU, describes in an essay that accompanies the DVD, he worked closely with Dr. William Mason, an African-American physician employed by the Georgia health department. Though they traveled together throughout the state to find their eventual "star" in Miss Mary and then make their film, Georgia's segregation laws prevented them from ever eating together or staying in the same hotel.
Indeed, as Stoney explains in his commentary on the DVD, the presence of white film crew members in African-American neighborhoods and rural cabins stirred up the local sheriff's department, which came close to stopping filming, or worse, even though the state government was the official sponsor of the film. (A decade after "All My Babies" was made, Albany, Ga., where Miss Mary lived, became the site of one of the most bitter desegregation struggles of the civil rights era.)
Stoney's film begins with a white doctor instructing a group of African-American midwives about the proper techniques for childbirth and the importance of maintaining sanitary conditions. In those days, few African-American mothers delivered their babies in hospitals, and there were few African-American doctors or nurses. Midwifery was effectively the only health care profession open to women of color.
The film then shows Miss Mary in action, teaching pregnant mothers about nutrition and helping them prepare their homes for childbirth.
But the unforgettable scenes involve childbirth _ first with Miss Mary delivering a baby in a home and to a family that is well-prepared, and then handling an emergency case, in which she has to deliver a premature baby for a poorly informed couple living in dire poverty in a fly-infested shack 11 miles outside Albany.
These latter scenes, Stoney explains, had to be re-enacted, for the obvious reason that one could not predict an emergency premature birth. But they are genuinely breathtaking. The young mother in question had suffered two failed pregnancies before, once delivering a stillborn baby, the other time miscarrying. Both the woman and her husband fear the worst for her latest pregnancy. They are also relatively new to the area and have little support from friends or relatives.
So when the husband knocks on Miss Mary's door in the middle of the night to say that his wife has gone into premature labor, we see the midwife spring into action. Arriving quickly at the ramshackle cabin, she cleans up, gets the husband to start a fire to both warm up the house and heat up water (there is no running water), constructs a makeshift incubator out of a cardboard box lined with bottles filled with hot water, and eventually delivers a healthy baby boy.
Stoney's DVD commentary and essay, along with an interview with Miss Mary's grandson, Bernard Coley, provide added details about what an extraordinary woman she was. (Mary Coley passed away in 1966.) She worked for years before she was able to afford a car, often walking five or 10 miles each way to reach isolated cabins. And she provided care that went far beyond just the delivery, devoting at least 10 days to each family as she helped them prepare for the birth, cook nutritional food and provide a healthy home for the newborn child and the worn-out mother.
In his interview, Bernard Coley reports that during the past few years his family has set up a scholarship in Miss Mary's honor at Albany State University, a historically African-American college.
Together with "All My Babies," it offers belated recognition of a woman who filmmaker Stoney describes as "perhaps the most admirable human being I have ever known."
Note: "All My Babies" may be hard to find at video outlets. But it is available from online retailers such as www.Amazon.com, and video stores (but not individuals) can order it from Image Entertainment (www.image-entertainment.com).