Black voices are generally underrepresented in many different platforms and topics. Black women in the media are often portrayed as loud and aggressive rather than soft, loving, and resilient as many other women are. A look into the realities of Black women, their stories and their ancestry can be better understood through the debut documentary of director Shantrelle P. Lewis, “In Our Mothers’ Garden,” which premiered on Netflix May 6.
The documentary was initially screened on May 3 through the help of the California African American Museum and an online event they held with director Lewis and one of the women featured in the documentary, Dr. Koko Zauditu-Selassie (Mama Koko). This special event allowed for viewers to get a better understanding of what Lewis wanted to portray through this documentary and her own relationship with her mother and the women in her family.
The documentary utilizes an interview-like style where Black women, sometimes with their mothers by their side, speak about their family history. Initially, there is a very humorous tone, as humor, love and warmth are integral parts of these women’s lives. One story in particular, told by the “Me Too” movement founder Tarana Burke, tells of how her grandmother, Willie Burke, smashed the window of a grocery store to get the attention of and scold a man who had slapped young Tarana for bumping into him. Although shocking, Burke recounts the story with a smile and a laugh, remembering the strong woman who would always protect her. There are jokes in the documentary on the differing experiences of immigrant Black women and American Black culture and how the inside game in Burke’s family was to try to get their grandmother to just say “I love you.”
These beautiful stories, along with a minor intermission segment called “Black Moses Barbie,” are lighthearted and shed light on these fun-loving women and their legacies. However, generational trauma and the need for control and resilience are also integral to their stories. Tour manager and actress Tina Farrisspeaks on how she was told to enjoy a show she was hosting when she learned of her grandfather’s passing. Associate Dean of Religious Life at Princeton University Dr. Theresa Thame speaks on how her grandmother was one to keep up external appearances. Thame’s mother was addicted to crack cocaine for the majority of her life and her grandmother was left to raise her grandchildren. She would drown herself in her work while raising her grandchildren. For Thames, her grandmother’s experience was insight into the patterns of compartmentalization and survival that are often passed down from generation to generation.
Oftentimes, as Lewis highlights, the issues carried by mothers are taken out on daughters and their trauma and pain transfers onto the next generation. Within the initial screening of the film and its Q&A, Lewis spoke about the importance of understanding to forgive. It is not uncommon for mothers to use their children as their support system and possibly distribute some of their burden and lash out. However, moving on and holding out forgiveness to mothers often comes with understanding their stories. Lewis’s own mother had to become the matriarch of the family in her 30s, a fact that caused a lot of stress on her part and resentment from Lewis. But this bitterness can cloud the relationship between us and our mothers and create unnecessary barriers to their stories, lives and love.
This notion of learning and understanding seems to be the message delivered throughout the documentary. Plenty of the women speak on the bluntness and stone-faced, strong persona of their grandmothers and mothers, which evolves into questioning their emotional ability to love. These internal struggles paired with the external issues of family breakdowns, death, addiction and racism often make it difficult to form a relationship beyond simple familial connection. However, this is why holding some space to listen and learn is so important. It can be easy to hold onto pain without understanding the lives and hardships of our mothers. Although not all actions can be excused, these women have shaped us into the people we are today.
The documentary is touching and vulnerable. It is made by and for women, and works to not only help these participants work through their own relationships and struggles surrounding the women in their lives, but also shows that despite trauma and hardships, there is joy and laughter. At the end of the day, when grandmothers and mothers have passed, all that is left is love. We remember our mothers personalities, their voices and the times they made us laugh rather than the times they made us cry. Thus, Lewis’ documentary is a tribute to the women that shaped her and the mothers like them, and to those that went through all the hardships so that their children could live better. It is the many stories of women and the love and joy brought on by mothers and grandmothers, a story that is beautifully told and a great watch for everyone.
Carisa DeSantos is an Entertainment Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at email@example.com.