On children II

film 2 of 4

All My Babies: A Midwife’s Own Story

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 10, 2015

Who cares about fictional features, part infinity. There’s some 1953 vintage paternalism here, and it’s proper, very important to admit it. But All My Babies is a good example of a very important, insufficiently acknowledged fact. Just because you’re paternalistic, or unenlightened in some other important way, doesn’t mean you can just be dismissed. We reflect the attitudes of our times or places or upbringings. Some of these attitudes won’t be so presentable, and it takes a while for a person to recognize the fact, if he ever does. Still, if a great man is limited, he’s not to be defined by those limitations. He’s still great.

The same goes with a great film. Decent things by decent people will always contain good with the ill. Or, as with this film, way more good than the ill. George Stoney’s beautiful landmark, produced for and with the Georgia Department of Public Health, is that great Robert Flaherty hybrid of fictional construction in the midst of anthropological reality. The result isn’t amateurism, but authenticity, as well as an alienation (BB, of course) that’s not just intellectual, but spiritual. The viewer is always aware, and always edified.

Stoney covers the talking points about health, hygiene and the bearing of children with simultaneous thoroughness and efficiency. And with what sympathy, and charity! The birth, which we see, is attended not only by hygienic but also familial details. It is very moving. The mother’s hand trembles! The spirituals, as sung by the community choir, are soul-stirring as well. And that midwife! Our protagonist, our guide, the recipient of most of the aforementioned condescension, and also the personage who utterly shakes off and rises above it. She’s a palpable force of nature, and of righteousness. (Biographical data doesn’t back that up? I guess biographical data doesn’t always matter as much as we think it does.)

Does all that balance the account, or eliminate error? Certainly not, and that means that we always need to find and encourage other voices, especially if they’ve not previously had sufficient access. But anthropology and medicine and even race relations are not closed systems, in which masses are conserved, and anything new must be balanced by the elimination of something old. All My Babies reflects a couple of attitudes that needed refining, or removing. Also, it is imperishable great.

(In the same connection let me urgently recommend Hugh Lofting’s very beautiful Dr. Dolittle books. 1922 and 1924 especially, and then 1923 and ’25 and ’26.)