Review: ‘In Our Mothers’ Gardens’ allows Black women to collectively share their stories

A woman sits between two plants beside an antique radio.
Director Shantrelle P. Lewis, who also appears in the documentary “In Our Mothers’ Gardens.”
(Rog Walker / Array)

Curator, critic and now filmmaker Shantrelle P. Lewis doesn’t shy away from the personal in her work. Her debut feature film, “In Our Mothers’ Gardens,” is no exception in its collective storytelling structure, bringing together Black women of various backgrounds and locales, including the filmmaker herself. Opening with a quote from esteemed writer and feminist Alice Walker (whose 1983 book of the same name serves as titular and methodological inspiration), Lewis carefully traces the matrilineal ancestries of the women highlighted, from activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke or cultural critic Brittney Cooper to Rev. Theresa S. Thames of Princeton University.

The successes of Lewis’ film lie in the filmmaker’s ability to cultivate a space of comfort and communal acknowledgment for the women seen and heard here. While at times repetitive in nature, the intention behind a film such as “In Our Mothers’ Gardens” feels more akin to replicating the togetherness of real-life encounters rather than editing, scripting and structuring down these conversations into more shiny, mutable parts. A similar resonance eventually exists on the film’s formal plane, with inlaid graphic designs and visual framing devices having a somewhat difficult time landing their conceptual footing until about midway through the film when they feel more organically in step with the lives and stories of the women from which we hear .

Lewis’ project is strongest when it divests its more static interview structure and instead parallels its narrative gestures with the real-life movements and words of its subjects. Most enchanting here is undoubtedly professor and priest of Obatala in the Lukumi/Yoruba tradition Kokahvah Zauditu-Selassie, a humorous and insightful figure whose limbs melodically jangle under the weight of her self-made jewelry as she speaks. We follow Zauditu-Selassie as she explains the spiritual and political context of her apparel, her home and her rituals. Within this, the filmmaking becomes more at ease and beautifully harmonious in tone. She radiates life and has the sort of seemingly abundant charisma that documentary filmmakers long to find.

While “In Our Mothers’ Gardens” stumbles to find its footing at times, Lewis’ work here often feels as if it figures outside of the structures of filmmaking practice. It aspires less to the twin cinematic impulses of consumption and skillful interpretation and more toward both a model and document of communion honoring the energy implicit with these shared histories of Black women. It’s a film to be watched not for its more literal filmmaking achievements, but rather for its ability to make you feel seen, with vulnerability and with love.

'In Our Mothers’ Gardens'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour 24 minutes

Playing: Available on Netflix