Filmmaker Savanah Leaf's 'Earth Mama' Captures the Complex Experience of Black Motherhood

Savanah Leaf at home in London.

Savanah Leaf is enjoying her homecoming. “I grew up in a house down the street,” she says when we meet among the terraced brick houses of London’s Vauxhall neighborhood on a weirdly balmy October morning. “When I was little, my mum used to drop me over the low fences in the backyard to visit my neighbors.”

Yet it's a neighborhood halfway around the world, in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the filmmaker lived from age 9, that provides the backdrop for Earth Mama, her feature debut in 2023. The film—which follows expectant mother Gia (Tia Nomore) as she navigates the foster-care system and her own struggle with addiction—grew out of Leaf’s 2020 documentary short on the topic, The Heart Still Hums, which she co-directed with Taylor Russell.

That research, combined with her family’s own experiences (Leaf’s younger sister was adopted as a newborn from a similarly struggling birth mother), planted the seeds that would become Earth Mama. “The documentary gave me a deeper connection to this story, and also brought up more questions that I wanted to explore,” she explains. “What does it mean to be fit to parent? And who determines that?”

Savanah wears a full look by Ferragamo. Shoes are model's own.

Leaf imbues her protagonist’s relentless daily routine with flashes of surrealistic beauty: tender close-ups of Gia’s belly, panoramas of trees that seem to inhale and exhale. The audio-visual landscape gives rhythm to the physical and emotional interiority that is becoming, and being, a mother.

“Pregnancy is an inner world within you,” says Leaf. “These expressions in the film have to do with her relationship to her child, but also to the lineage of Black women that came before her. She is in this very claustrophobic environment, but she’s right down the road from the water, the redwoods. That holds so much weight in terms of how long [Black women] have been on this planet.”

Savanah wears a tank top and heels by Paris Georgia and pants by Pronounce.

Alongside these hymns to the natural world, Earth Mama is filled with reverence for life’s small aesthetic pleasures, like a set of plastic mood rings Gia gives to her son and daughter to help them feel close to her while they are in foster care. Like her unborn child, such offerings seem filled with potential and possibility.

But as with the postcard-like backdrops customers choose in the photo studio where she works, these gestures also reveal a sense of fulfillment that is just out of reach. “It was a way to reflect on how we showcase our families to the rest of the world,” Leaf says of the studio scenes, which feature Dominic Fike as Gia’s coworker. “They represent all those versions of family that [Gia] longs for.”


Though Earth Mama is remarkable in its specificity, Leaf understands why so many viewers relate to Gia—after all, she certainly does. “There is so much masking and hiding that you have to do, especially as a Black woman in these spaces,” she says. “How do I fight for my kids, and show them I’m a good mom? How do I get angry enough, but not too angry? Those layers of holding back in order to move forward are things I feel in my life.”

These days, Leaf is shifting the focus of her personal excavation to her identity as a Londoner. “The act of writing is very therapeutic,” she says of her forthcoming screenplay. “I’m really intrigued to explore that side of me—and what it means to be biracial.”

At the moment, Leaf is balancing the attention garnered from Earth Mama, which showed at the London Film Festival this fall following its U.S. premiere at Sundance in January, with the return to a more introspective space. That undertaking is shaped by reading about other directors’ processes (she cites the journals of the Dardenne brothers as one resource). “I turned 30 this year. It’s a real moment of transition,” she muses. “I’m trying to protect myself, while also being as vulnerable as I can. What does that look like?”