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In Our Mothers’ Gardens, the feature directorial debut of Shantrelle P. Lewis, gingerly tends to the incandescent and sometimes knotty relationships between Black mothers and their daughters. The film, distributed by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and available on Netflix, takes inspiration in name and concept from Alice Walker’s 1972 essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” a still-brilliant meditation on the interior and artistic lives of Black women in America.
Walker’s essay begins with several questions: How did the mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers of Black American women, forced into bondage and servitude, express themselves? Who were they? What did they do with their creative energies? To find answers, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” leisurely wades through literary criticism and personal history. Walker indicts Virginia Woolf’s ill-considered sentiment that for women, artistic expression requires “a room of her own” (with a key and lock), contextualizes Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and admires the quilt work of “an anonymous Black woman in Alabama” hanging in the Smithsonian before introducing readers to her own mother’s mode of expression: gardening. She litters her musings with invitations for other Black women to embark on similar journeys: “If we ask ourselves why, and search for and find the answer, we will know,” Walker writes, “just exactly who, and of what, we black American women are.”
In Our Mothers’ Gardens embraces Walker’s call to action by assembling an eclectic group of Black women and asking them to share stories of their mothers and grandmothers. The cast includes familiar faces, such as Tarana J. Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement; Dr. Brittney Cooper, an academic, activist and the author of Eloquent Rage; Tina Farris, a tour manager whose clients have included The Roots and Chris Rock; and Latham Thomas, the doula and founder of the maternity education organization Mama Glow.
They, and many others, meander through intimate testimonies, parsing their relationships with their mothers and ancestors. Part of the doc’s charm comes from Lewis’ interventions, moments when she jokes and gently encourages her subjects to dig deeper. She also makes extended appearances in the documentary, relaxing into the plush velvet chairs (part of the ornate and soft set design by Brooklyn-based vintage concept store BLK MKT) to mine her own memory.
The documentary’s most moving and striking moments, however, come from interviews with Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, a priest of Obatala Lukumi/Yoruba tradition who teaches at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. Sitting in her lush, plant-filled apartment, she captivates viewers with her bracing truths and sharp witticisms. We watch as she fingers her handmade jewelry, explaining that they are “not accessories, they are necessities.” They are also talismans and fodder for stories detailing her travels and illuminating parts of her relationship to her mother. She models a curiosity rooted in reverence for the past and the connectivity of the African diaspora. The film could have used more steady-focused moments like these, which, in this case, allows viewers to appreciate Zauditu-Selassie’s personality and feel the weight of her storytelling.
Centering humor and grace, In Our Mothers’ Gardens voices emotions still rarely expressed in stories about Black women. Love between mothers and daughters is not a puzzle, but a house whose nooks and crannies reveal themselves over years and even decades. Although the testimonies convey mostly gratitude, they don’t ignore what these relationships sometimes lack in either emotional support or physical presence. This allows the film to sidestep (although not completely avoid) the trap of over-sentimentalizing maternal bonds.
Where the movie falls short is in its consideration of who can mother. Celebrating Black motherhood should require a more expansive definition — one that embraces chosen families and trans mothers and caregivers. In engaging with maternal bonds on mostly biological terms, the documentary plays into narrow conceptions of motherhood.
When it comes to what viewers see on screen, In Our Mothers’ Gardens experiments boldly — with mixed results. Tapping into her whimsical curatorial sensibilities, Lewis shrinks shots of each interviewee and plays with the background, adding gold frames, cutouts of vintage family photos and perennials. The resultant collages recall Catholic iconography honoring saints and anchor the film (quite literally) in its theme of gardens. Other artistic risks don’t quite work, like the inclusion of a Black Moses Barbie commercial from artist Pierre Bennu. The clip, which reenacts Harriet Tubman helping a reluctant “Runaway Christie” and “Runaway Ken” make their way to freedom, feels more like an interrogation of contemporary marketing techniques than a celebration of Tubman. I struggled to make sense of its meaning within the context of a film that firmly roots itself in celebration of Black women and their intimate testimonies.
Despite its flaws, In Our Mothers’ Gardens is an assured documentary that cogently wrestles with Walker’s thesis before enthusiastically passing the baton. Toward the film’s end, Lewis calls on her subjects to define themselves. “Who are you?” she asks, prompting each woman to declare her lineage. It’s a powerful question, and an invitation for Black women to consider telling the story of that person they call Mom.
Distributors: Array, Netflix
Production companies: House of the Seven Sisters
Director: Shantrelle P. Lewis
Producers: JaSaun L. Buckner, Shantrelle P. Lewis, Joshua E. Nelson
Executive producers: Shantrelle P. Lewis, Jill Scott, Tayyib Smith, Layne Eskridge, Erica Sewell, Amatus Sami Karim, Monifa Bandele, Rakia Reynolds, Sharifa Murdock, Sandra L. Richards
Director of photography: Shawn Peters, Sekiya Dorsett
Editor: Sheniqua (Niq) Lewis
Composer: Willard Hill
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