“In Our Mothers’ Gardens” Celebrates the Legacy of Black Mothers

Black Feminist in Public is a series of conversations between creative Black women and Janell Hobson, a Ms. scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of history, popular culture and representations of women of African descent.


In Our Mothers’ Gardens, the new documentary by debut filmmaker Shantrelle P. Lewis, from Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY films, premieres Friday on the streaming giant Netflix. A deeply personal film exploring the relationships between Black mothers and daughters, Lewis and her close circle of friends, mentors and Black feminists—including women from different regions of the African Diaspora and public figures such as #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and public intellectual Brittney Cooper, among others—gather in the comfort of living rooms to wax poetic about Black motherhood, its joys, struggles and resistance against the forces of anti-Black racism and misogynoir since the era of the transatlantic slave trade.

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“Our mothers were always doing the best that they could,” said filmmaker Shantrelle P. Lewis. “We need to look at their lives from a space of grace, compassion and understanding of what it means to be Black women in a hyper racist, white supremacist, patriarchal, anti-Black, anti-woman world.” (Courtesy)

Having authored the book, Dandy Lion: The Black Dandy and Street Style, based on an international traveling exhibition that she curated about Black masculinity and fashion, and relying on her skills as a former museum curator, Lewis reframes old family photographs and her documentary talking heads through a colorful collage on par with a lush and richly layered botanica.

As a New Orleans native, Howard University alum, artist, curator, scholar and Yoruba priest, Lewis shrewdly invokes Alice Walker’s “mothers’ gardens” ahead of the Mother’s Day weekend to explore how Black motherhood has survived and thrived intergenerationally.

Lewis spoke with Ms. magazine’s Janell Hobson for the re-launch of her Black Feminist in Public series.


Janell Hobson: First, I want to say, your film is so aesthetically engaging. I love the way all of your film subjects are interviewed in lovely parlor settings, so we get a very intimate sense as if we’re having a private conversation.

Shantrelle P. Lewis: I wanted the audience to feel like they were sitting in their mother’s living room, or their grandmother’s living room, where a lot of these conversations would take place.

Hobson: It’s fitting, as is the metaphor of “our mothers’ gardens,” as some of the film subjects also appear in garden settings. You also begin the film with a quote from Alice Walker.

Lewis: I came of age when Alice Walker was in her prime. I remember reading The Color Purple when I was in the sixth grade. Now, mind you, everything went completely over my head. I didn’t know anything that was going on, and it wasn’t until I revisited the book in college, in Black women’s lit classes, that I began having a different understanding as an 18-year-old college student, or even as a 42-year-old woman when I revisited the text again. So, it was important for me to give Alice Walker her powers as a storyteller, and the ways in which she talks about discovering, “In search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.”

I wanted to enter into my own mother’s garden, so this film begins where Alice Walker left off. I wanted to push the conversation further. One of the Black feminist scholars that I interview is a dear friend and fellow Howard University alum, Dr Brittney Cooper. She talks about how our mothers and our grandmothers didn’t have access to therapy, so their tools were really Black feminist storytellers of their day: Alice Walker, bell hooks, Iyanla Vanzant, Gloria Naylor—all of these different women.

Hobson: How did you come to choose film as the means to continue this conversation, this storytelling?

Lewis: For most of my career, I was a visual arts curator. I worked primarily at Black cultural institutions, and my exhibitions traveled nationally and internationally. My book Dandy Lion was based on a curatorial project about global Black dandyism and how Black folks that dress themselves in a particular way have always asserted their agency through dressing up. But then I retired as a curator.

I’ve always been interested in exploring other mediums of storytelling. Film was just a natural progression from visual arts curator and the ways in which I would use a museum space to contextualize the work that was on display on the walls and in the 3D work on the gallery floors.

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“Don’t try to make a film to appease an audience, or because you want Ava DuVernay or Ryan Coogler to see it. Just tell a story that needs to be told, a story that you haven’t heard, that you haven’t seen, that’s important to you,” said Lewis, pictured here on location in the Algiers neighborhood in New Orleans. (Courtesy)

Hobson: What is intriguing about your film is the way you bring in different modes of storytelling: the oral, the visual, and now the documentary experience. Do you believe we’re experiencing a renaissance in Black filmmaking?

Lewis: Yes, I think so. The stories were always there. All we waited for were the resources, so that’s why this is an exciting time. I was thrilled that ARRAY invited me to distribute my film. It’s a privilege working with Ava, who’s been a champion of not only Black filmmakers, but filmmakers of color and women filmmakers more importantly. She was someone who started by distributing her own films. ARRAY came out of a need for Black stories to be told. So, we’ve always had Black stories, Black filmmakers and storytellers. We’re rooted in cultures that are based in oral tradition and oral literature. Storytelling and filmmaking are just, I think, a natural expression of that.


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Hobson: How did you come to work on this film?

Lewis: The idea came to me from a spiritual reading actually. I’m a Yoruba priest, and I was told, “You need to be doing work with women, and you need to be doing some kind of story about women.” I’m like, “Really?”

I’ve been working on Black masculinity for so long, and I was just kind of obedient to that. Divination is a very central part of my practice as a priest, and it is also central to the work that I do. So, when being told during a reading that I needed to do this work, and then being told in another reading, “Yeah, and it’s going to be on Netflix,” I entered the film process with all of that. Now the end goal wasn’t to get the film on Netflix, but it was to get the story told.

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“We’ve always had Black stories, Black filmmakers and storytellers. We’re rooted in cultures that are based in oral tradition and oral literature. Storytelling and filmmaking are just, I think, a natural expression of that,” Lewis told Ms. (Courtesy)

Hobson: It’s interesting you say that because more and more women of African descent are leaving behind their Christian faith and rediscovering traditional African religions. That also gets represented in popular culture if we think of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. What are your thoughts on these developments?

Lewis: Well, I’m from New Orleans, and Voodoo, Hoodoo, is embedded in the fabric of New Orleans culture and identity. I never knew a time I did not know about the existence of Voodoo or Hoodoo. I was raised above ground, but you can feel the dead spirits walking amongst you. You go down to the French Quarter, you go to other places. My paternal grandmother died when I was five, and I would see her as a child. One of my maternal grandfathers died when I was 16, and ever since then I’ve been going to the cemetery. I would take my journal and I would just sit on the grave and read and write in the cemetery. So, I’ve always felt comfortable amongst my ancestors. I grew up Catholic, but around the time I left the church, I went on a trip to Brazil, where I met these Afro-Brazilian matriarchs, who had been keepers of African sacred traditions since slavery when the first Africans were brought over by the Portuguese.

A major goal of my work, even with this film, is to bring people closer to African traditional religion and to help debunk and demystify African spirituality. I actually embrace what Beyonce did with Lemonade. It was a gorgeous, visual work that felt very much like Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. I was appreciative of the visual references too. I think there’s a missing part of us reclaiming our heritage as a people. I think our ancestors’ spirituality is part of that missing link that would help us dismantle a lot of these hyper-patriarchal racist structures that have been oppressing us for the past 400 years as a people.

Hobson: In mentioning Lemonade and Daughters of the Dust, were either of these influential to your own filmmaking?

Lewis: Definitely Daughters of the Dust. I loved the visuals of Lemonade, but Daughters of the Dust was more of a reference. I don’t know any woman filmmaker who has not been influenced by Julie Dash’s work, which was very important to the idea of what happened during the great migration when families traveled up north or to the west, what was left behind, what was lost, what we were able to save, and how we maintained those spiritual traditions that allowed us to survive.

Hobson: What do you think your film is doing differently that we don’t often see in films about Black mothers and daughters?

Lewis: What I say in the film is that our mothers were always doing the best that they could. We need to look at their lives from a space of grace, compassion and understanding of what it means to be Black women in a hyper racist, white supremacist, patriarchal, anti-Black, anti-woman world. And I hope to bring our mothers’ lives in that context. I don’t think that everyone needs to go out and necessarily engage in conversations they’re not prepared for, especially if they have an abusive relationship with their moms. But I think it’s an invitation to dig deeper and find some much needed generational healing to break generational trauma and cyclical curses.

Hobson: What advice would you give to someone wanting to make a Black feminist film?

Lewis: My suggestion is to be as authentic as possible. Don’t try to make a film to appease an audience, or because you want Ava DuVernay or Ryan Coogler to see it. Just tell a story that needs to be told, a story that you haven’t heard, that you haven’t seen, that’s important to you. Because when things get hard in the production process, when you’re scrambling for money, or when you’re having to deal with investors, or film subjects who don’t want to cooperate, or if you’re having problems with your crew, the only thing that’s going to keep you going is that you know this is a story that needs to be told. And you know that people need to see and hear it.

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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.