“In Our Mothers’ Gardens” marks the directorial debut for Shantrelle Lewis, a curator of African-American art who further rose to prominence with her critique of colorism and the New Orleans setting of Beyonce’s “Formation” video. The fleet 85-minute film, distributed by Ava DuVernay’s Array Releasing and Netflix, takes its title from Alice Walker’s essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. That work concerned womanist theory wherein she outlined a generational Black feminist love.
Lewis’ documentary is a personal statement made through collective means. She interviews a cadre of women from varying backgrounds. Some hail from Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky and so forth. Others trace their roots back to Sierra Leone, Puerto Rico, Antigua, etc. They are intellectuals, entrepreneurs, and activists sharing heartwarming stories regarding their mothers, grandmothers, and other important women in their lives. The most well-known name featured is Tarana Burke, the founder of the MeToo Movement. The sum total of the recollections offered is sprawling, almost too vast.
In the early going, it’s difficult to define the scope of “In Our Mothers’ Gardens.” The assorted accounts of lineage, tradition, home cooking, and church almost bleed into one. Some are memorable: Burke humorously describes the moment a man slapped her and her grandmother threw a pipe through the supermarket window he hid behind. Dr. Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage, recounts how her grandmother in Choudrant, Louisiana often kept a rifle in her home’s door jam to ward off, namely, white intruders. These perspectives keep the documentary afloat before Lewis finds her bearings.
Somewhere after the early third, Lewis hones in on direct subjects titled “on survival,” “on love,” and “on radical self-care”—introduced by black-grey intertitle cards. Here, these eloquent talking heads explain the ways Black women are asked to care for others but rarely themselves, how they wrestle with imposter syndrome, and how they must spiritually replenish themselves through love and joy. Most importantly they strongly elucidate how these issues stem from the generational trauma of racism and sexism, and the coping mechanisms the important complex women in their lives gave.