'I want you to meet Miss Mary Coley, a midwife who lives in Albany, Georgia,â?� intones the measured narration at the start of All My Babies. 'This is a story about how she helps people.â?� Documentary filmmaker George Stoney was recruited by the Georgia Department of Public Health in the early 1950s to produce an instructional film demonstrating proper birth hygiene for the many lay midwives practicing their craft among poor African-American women. Thanks to a combination of Stoney's humane direction and Coley's no-nonsense, nurturing screen presence, what was originally intended to be seen only by rural health-care workers quickly gained worldwide prominence when UNESCO chose the film to educate birth attendants around the globe. In 2002 the Library of Congress voted to include it in the National Film Registry as a 'culturally, historically, and artistically significant work.â?� So is All My Babies really all that?
While there's no escaping this is a classroom film with a didactic agenda rather than a truly vÃ©ritÃ© documentary, there's something about its unassailable sincerity that inoculates it against the kitsch that engulfs so many other once-deadpan instructional films of the era. It's impossible to smirk as the camera follows 'Miss Maryâ?� on rounds in her impoverished sharecropper community, first to a home birth in what the film considers ideal conditions ('Bed made fresh, newspaper pads ready ' I wish to goodness all my mothers could have everything fixed up this niceâ?�) and then on to an expectant mother suffering from crippling poverty and malnutrition. The centerpiece is an actual birth, shot graphically but with great dignity and joy, the scene's total silence broken by the cry of the slippery and vulnerable infant suddenly emerging. When the gospel choir soundtrack swells to proclaim 'Everything's ready for the baby! Fresh and clean for the baby!â?� it feels like a call to divine purity.
The DVD extras (including a commentary track by Stoney, a photo gallery and an interview with Mary Coley's grandson) provide much-needed insight about where the film's reality and artifice overlap without diminishing the magnitude of Coley's importance. Coley not only presided over thousands of births in her career, but routinely stayed on to cook and clean while the new moms regained their strength ' once even carting a mattress from her own home so a particularly indigent client didn't have to give birth on the floor. The actual infant mortality rate among rural midwives of the time may have been unacceptable enough to force the creation of this film, but Coley's devotion to her craft and 'herâ?� babies transforms an educational filmstrip into an extraordinary portrait of an American time and place presided over by an equally extraordinary woman.