Sometimes there’s nothing more fascinating and intriguing than listening to somebody tell stories not just about themselves, but about their ancestors that we’ve never seen and will never see. From director Shantrelle P. Lewis, In Our Mothers’ Gardens is exactly that, a documentary that features a number of interviewees paying homage to the brilliant women in their lives through nothing more than their stories and anecdotes.
Among the many women interviewed include MeToo movement founder Tarana J. Burke, author Dr. Brittney Cooper, and tour manager Tina Farris. The interviews are conducted from cosy, dimly lit living rooms (with a couple of exceptions), creating a relaxed environment where these women can communicate and let their stories loose.
The documentary from Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY focuses on mothers and grandmothers, and how their experiences and relationships have helped shape who they are today. Lewis expertly crafts and organises the flow of the documentary, and it helps that the women involved are incredibly engaging and tell their stories with grace. It’s clear these are stories they’ve wanted to tell a wider audience and their enthusiasm for particular anecdotes is infectious.
One of the most memorable is Burke recollecting a story where she was hit by a stranger in the supermarket, and her grandmother – enraged on finding this out -smashed open the store window to confront the man. Burke has such a powerful presence whenever on screen, and it’s rewarding to learn more of the background that helped shape one of the 2017 Times Person of the Year.
The most fascinating and watchable personality on screen is Dr. Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, a current teacher at Morgan State University in Baltimore. From talking through the jewellery she wears for a variety of reasons (including protection), to discussing the dinners she makes and offers to her ancestors as a mark of respect, Zauditu-Selassie lights up the screen whenever she is on. It doesn’t do justice to discuss her stories in depth here because she tells them with such eloquence that it’s worth your time to watch, even for her stories alone.
There are a couple of repetitive parts of the documentary where the anecdotes are split into categories. This forces stories to fit into one category or another when in fact some would be better off seamlessly woven in together. It’s understandable to create these divided sections to keep the stories tight and in sync thematically with each other, but it doesn’t always work, particular towards the latter half. It also takes the documentary a little while to find its footing in the first twenty minutes, but once introductions have been made the stories become deeper and more engaging.
What’s clear by the end of the documentary is the importance of remembering where those before you came, how they were raised and how that impacted you. Not every woman interviewed is entirely close with their mothers today, but they all have respect for them, and acknowledge their importance in shaping them into the person they are.
Lewis doesn’t shy away from showing us some of the deeply personal, upsetting stories from some of the women either. While it’s enjoyable to listen to the upbeat stories of heroics, it’s also valuable to listen to the stories involving abuse, mental health, physical health and even suicide. It’s commendable how Lewis and everyone involved in creating the documentary creates such a safe space, and it’s brave of these women for sharing these stories to a wider audience.
In Our Mothers’ Gardens is a fascinating watch to help you understand and appreciate the different journeys these black women and their families before them have gone through.