In one respect, In Our Mothers’ Gardens is not meant for me, or for any white women. It is a fearless, confessionalist record, from inside personal histories, of Black mothers and grandmothers, and it is steeped in Black love and culture. As such, the film is amplifying women in a way that isn’t about me or any privileged white folk. In another, it absolutely is for people of all colors and backgrounds, in that it can open the eyes of people who have no true understanding of the strength of family and matriarchy in Black communities. This celebration reflects, through a wide diversity of real stories by Black women, the power, importance, influence, and, above all, the perspective, of Black matriarchy.
The third title released in 2021 by Array, the multi-platform arts and social impact collective dedicated to narrative change, In Our Mothers’ Gardens arrives right around Mother’s Day. It is perfectly timed, as many are all still reeling from a worldwide pandemic, and few are risking travel to see family yet.
There’s such love in the words people like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and NPR Senior Programming Director Yolanda Sangweni share. The group of women presented by director Shantrelle P. Lewis in In Our Mothers’ Gardens have wildly divergent experiences, but love is the common denominator.
As with all things involving Ava DuVernay, Array walks the walk of distributing films that reveal an aspect of society too often sidelined. In this case, Array brings a title that opens a door into the complex relationships between Black mothers and daughters.
The storytelling structure includes segues, one style of which has photographs of the women being discussed are being photoshopped into layers that are built with images representative of their full lives. It is an interesting and creative metaphor for how those being interviewed are slowly revealing the full picture of their extraordinary ancestors both immediate and distant. There’s another sequence has a very funny take of Black Barbie.
There is great depth in these interviews, which are conducted in the comfort of the subjects’ chose locations, often inside their own homes. If there was any reticence or hesitancy, it doesn’t appear onscreen. The film is broken up into segments that focus on various aspects of life, and how their mothers and grandmothers live or lived it, including ‘The Grandmothers’, ‘On Survival’ and ‘On Love’, and so on.
Holistic lifestyle professional Latham Thomas speaks about her mother’s midwifery, helping her grandmother transition from this life to the next, making her feel safe and honored as she left. Religion plays an important part in many but not all of these women’s family lives. Some come from great wealth, some experienced poverty. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, the stories reveal huge challenges and joys. Several mothers or grandmothers kept shotguns close by in case the KKK showed up on their doorstep.
These stories reveal the tenacity of women who often hadn’t been born with the right to vote, were exposed to intense racism, or were only seen as valuable from the outside when they did something for someone else or cared for someone else above themselves. These Black mothers learned how to not only persevere but excel in the white world trying to keep them down.
Dr. Koko Zauditu Selassie, a professor of global Black literature, talks about how important it is for Black women to remember the stories of relations and their experiences. “You can’t have a short memory and be Black. You have to have a long memory, because you’re singing a long song.” In Our Mothers’ Gardens makes it clear that Black mothers and grandmothers, and all the generations preceding those living today, paved the way, offered tools, and created space for Black women to believe themselves limitless, and celebrate their own power and strength in the world today, despite the continued danger from outside forces.
4 out of 5 stars.