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“Every Visual Aspect of the Film Functions to Bring People Home”: Director Shantrelle P. Lewis on In Our Mothers’ Gardens

In Our Mothers' Gardens

Shantrelle P. Lewis’ feature documentary debut, In Our Mothers’ Gardens, calls forth and preserves the family histories of several Black women from Lewis’ life, traces each of their past joys and traumas to the present and lets them out into the world to heal. She creates a welcome space for her interviewees to open up on camera, many of whom are dear old friends, and she listens intently and asks thoughtful questions like, “What does your grandmother’s love look like?”, which encourage equally thoughtful responses. All of the women she interviews can call the names and stories of their ancestors several generations back and have a firm grasp of how their lineage inspires and affects them today. These stories comprise most of the film and are highly moving on their own, but Lewis wraps them together with loving accents and a thorough attention to detail, which she accredits to her long running career as an art curator. Among other things, she is also an author, the founder of SHOPPE BLACK, and a practicing Lucumi Sango priest. She also appears in the film to tell her story. In Our Mother’s Garden arrives at a time when the quarantine has encouraged many of us to look back at old photo albums and keepsakes, letting neglected family stories up for some much needed air. But the film encourages us to go farther than that, to hold that history at the ready.

Lewis talked with us about how she created a comfortable space for both her subjects and viewers, who she hopes will leave compelled to establish a deeper connection to their history and home. 

Released by ARRAY Releasing, In Our Mother’s Home is available now on Netflix.

Filmmaker: You seem close to all of the subjects in the film. What inspired you to gather these people together to tell their stories?

Shantrelle P. Lewis: Twenty out of the 20-something women were very close friends of mine for probably the last 15+ years. How did it start? I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Yoruba religion, but I’m an initiated priest, and for the past ten years most of my work has surrounded Black masculinity in the diaspora, Black dandyism, a curatorial exhibition project that travelled nationally and internationally. The book got published by Aperture. But I was told during a spiritual reading that I have to do work with women specifically. I was like, “Wait, really?” [laughs] I tend to gravitate towards more masculine subjects. But I was obedient and at the same time I was unpacking my relationship with my own mother. I went to Howard for undergrad; Howard is a mafia. There’s like one degree of separation between you and every other Black person in the world if you went to Howard. So I just turned to my own circle, and for that level of intimacy and immediate trust, it was there because I think these women knew I would be able to hold some of their most complicated and trauma filled stories tenderly and with intention in how I shared them to the world.

Filmmaker: How did you prepare your friends for those harder questions?

Lewis: In some of the interviews there was a car service that brought them to the location, but when the budget got a little tighter folks were getting there on their own. But either way the environment was so inviting and warm that it felt like they were entering their grandmother’s living room. They’d sit down and I would ask them to take a deep breath in and out, as you see on screen, and then I just asked them, “You good?” You know? That’s what I ask people on the day to day. I’m from New Orleans, and we say “You good?” Not “You’re good?” Y-O-U-apostrophe-R-E. [laughs] It’s that Black dialect, that jargon. “You’re good?” Is more like, “You’re trippin.” “You good?” is like, “I see you’re going through a lot of things, are you good?” So that was my process, and we journeyed through their stories together from there.

Filmmaker: Did you shoot that on location or at a studio? 

Lewis: It was a studio in Manhattan, and another studio in Brooklyn. I chose a lot of the furniture, and then I asked my friends at BLK MKT Vintage to do a lot of the set decoration with their old school vintage props. They saw my vision and collaborated with me to execute it. It was natural that I would turn to BLK MKT Vintage because of the work they do in honoring Black heritage and legacy through artifacts and memorabilia.

Filmmaker: A lot of your work speaks to the importance of dress and all of your subjects are dressed beautifully. Did you make any wardrobe requests?

Lewis: My friends know how I express myself aesthetically, my work, my exhibitions, my career rooted in Black dandyism and the art of dressing well, dressing up, using dress as resistance and an expression of Black joy. And honestly man, I just have some fly ass friends! [laughs] They knew the expectation! That was also intentional, that I would select some of my flyest friends. But that’s kind of just how we roll on a regular day. It was implied. “Oh, Shantrelle’s doing something, we’re going to be on camera, we need to come in our Sunday best.” It was understood on both sides.

Filmmaker: What else dictates who you brought into the room?

Lewis: I treated the film like an exhibition that I curated. I was so meticulous as a curator, down to the paint color. A lot of curators are hands off when it comes to those types of decisions, or rely heavily on the exhibition designer. I did it all myself because all of it is spiritual practice for me. I come from the school of thought that art and aesthetics have function and meaning outside of art for arts sake. My worldview as a curator and filmmaker is that of an African-centric storyteller, where the mask functions in a ceremony of thoughts. Every visual aspect of the film functions to bring people home, make people feel comfortable, and to then leave the theater, their computer, their television in their living room, and call their mother, or journal, or reflect. Let me give this person some grace to call another family member and ask them about their family tree and genealogy, and to begin to tell their stories. Most importantly, I hope all these aesthetic arrangements and choices will make people walk away calling their ancestors names. 

Filmmaker: For some of your subjects, you design a frame for them made up of their family photos and origin. Can you talk about that recurring device?

Lewis: I was presented with a huge problem when I sat down in post. I had one set of interviews that I shot on an Alexa Mini with my original D.P Shawn Peters, who’s worked with Terrence Nance. Terrence’s brother [Nelson Mandela Nance] actually did the score for the film. So Shawn did the first interviews on an Alexa Mini, and Sekiya [Dorsett], the other D.P., shot with another camera on a different set. That camera had a completely different vibe than the precise image of the Alexa. I didn’t know how I could make it cohesive without disrupting the integrity of the picture. I was limited by COVID, I couldn’t get the cinema verite footage that I would have loved to get. So I ended up working with a young graphic designer based in Kenya, Bouba Doula. On her Instagram page she has what I call mortises. She does a lot of collage work using historical photos. She’ll put a frame inside the collage and then there’ll be a moving image. I could not have done this film without my editor [Sheniqua Lewis]. She was my go-to person on set. I told her about the idea and she was excited and helped me push her. It worked, they helped me maintain the integrity of the original interviews. In the collages she used photos and images from the different locations depending on the subject. So we had images from Chicago, Sierra Leone, South Africa, the Carribean, Puerto Rico…

Filmmaker: Did Doula also animate the archival photos?

Lewis: So I call that the Idlewild effect. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Idlewild, but in the opening credits they did something similar. That effect actually has a name, but I can’t remember it. My friend, a Congolese filmmaker based in Rotterdam, was the animator who did those photos and my grandparents—the scene with them arguing about insure. [laughs]

Filmmaker: You often shoot Dr. Koko from low angles. Can you talk about your approach to filming her scenes, which were the only ones shot outside of a studio?

Lewis: Mama Koko was a professor where I went to grad school, but we’re also in the same spiritual house. Her house is a museum as you can see. Every corner of the walls, her body, she’s a living, talking museum. I had an even more limited budget at the time we shot her. Shawn, who was in L.A. at the time, recommended Kirby Griffin, who is an amazing cinematographer based in Baltimore. So I had a skeleton crew at Mama Koko’s house because she and her husband are elders and I didn’t want to give them Covid. It was me, my producer Josh Nelson, the sound recordist, and Kirby. Mama Koko’s house is so packed, we had to social distance, and Kirby’s having to get these shots where she sometimes isn’t looking at the camera. Because we’re actually having a conversation. This woman is one of my elders, one of my mentors, and I didn’t want it to seem as if this was all about the audience. I’m bringing the audience into her home and allowing them to be a fly on the wall in her environment and sit at the foot of an elder.

Filmmaker: I could have listened to her talk for much longer.

Lewis: I had about three more hours of footage that I had to leave on the cutting room floor. Story after story! Imagine the stress between me and my editor trying to figure it out. [Sheniqua] was like, “We can’t have these long scenes, it’s going to be too long.” Even when the producers watched it they felt it was long. But it just felt right. I wanted Mama Koko to participate, but at the time she was dealing with a lot of life happenings. So she would have been another talking head. But she wasn’t able to participate in those first interviews and because of Covid I couldn’t bring her into a studio setting, so that gave us the opportunity to go and see her. Everything she did, like cooking food for the ancestors, there was no way we could have recreated that on a set. We’re talking about almost 70 years of her living as a collector, as a scholar, historian, and avid traveler. There was no set that we could have built that could have mimicked being in her house. She was just being herself. After we filmed her, I knew she was going to be the star of the show. 

Filmmaker: How did you decide what to show and not show from each subjects’ personal and familial traumas?

Lewis: It was just really about trust. There were moments in the interview when Tarana [Burke] had to pause because what we were sharing was so heavy and intense. She’s truly aware that any time she speaks about her trauma, even though she’s the founder of the #MeToo movement, that she’s also speaking about the trauma of her family. Part of it was my decision to insert myself. My editor and producers really wanted me to put myself into the film. I resisted for a while because I felt there were pieces of me inside of everyone else’s story. Being limited with our budget and what I could shoot, I began to use the preexisting footage, including that of myself. In the process, during covid, having that time to pause and reflect, my activities were pulling out crates of old home videos and VHS tapes from storage. In that, I found all this footage that I didn’t even know I had of my grandmother who passed away in 2007. So I was able to insert her into the film. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I treated everyone’s stories as delicately as I treated my own. In the same way, I was ready to put my story on blast because of the way I knew it would impact people in my family. I think that’s the way that a non-objective filmmaker, particularly if you’re Black, can allow the work to support our community, rather than re-traumatize our community. There’s so much trauma porn as it relates to the spectacle of Black death, right? Starting with Birth of a Nation all the way down. There’s enough trauma porn in the industry, and I never intend to add anything to that body of work.

Filmmaker: When you are on camera telling your story, did you have someone behind the camera helping you? How did you prepare yourself for that?

Lewis: To be honest, it was the end of the day when I was being shot and I was tired. These are women I have an emotional relationship with, I had to listen to their stories intently while also thinking about the framing, the shot, the time; my brain was being overworked. By the time it came to film me we had about 15 minutes and the person who was interviewing me wasn’t making eye contact! So I kept looking down, because I didn’t know where to look. It’s really hard when somebody’s asking you a question and I’m looking at you and your eyes aren’t there, especially when you’re sharing very vulnerable and intimate stories.

Luckily I am a very open person and it doesn’t take much for me to divulge my deepest secrets to people. Thank goodness we were able to edit in B-Roll and pick up lines because we were trying to cover the parts where I was looking down. 

But when I was interviewing subjects it was really important for me to really maintain eye contact, nod my head, smile, laugh and even cry when they were sharing. 

Filmmaker: The importance of rest is a recurring topic of the film. Did you make space to rest during the making of the film?

Lewis: Not during production days. [laughs] I wish I had a nice comfortable hotel. A nice comfortable bed, windows with blinds and an eye mask. But during the editing process yes and no. I listened to some really good music. My editor Sheniqua and I were on zoom. She’s in Brooklyn, I’m in Philly, and we’re doing like 15-18 hour zoom calls just going over footage. During COVID I’m in the house with my husband, my two bright kids, one is a college student at Morehouse and the other’s in high school. They’re doing virtual classes while I’m talking loud, yelling, having animated conversations. [laughs] So I didn’t rest as much as I should have, but I did try to take care of myself. There were times I had to tell my editor, “Stop! You’re not feeling well. Don’t call me again until you feel better” There were even times when I was having cramps on my cycle, I was moody, she might have been moody, we were moody and grouchy together. It was like, “OK. The grouch is out tonight!” In place of not always being able to rest, I inserted humor, and that helped to ease the hard work of getting this film locked during a global pandemic. 

Filmmaker: The title is a reference to Alice Walker’s In Search Of Our Mother’s Garden. What does it mean that you removed the search? That we are now in the garden.

Lewis: Alice Walker’s older than my mom, but definitely a boomer. There was a time when she was in search of her mother’s story and was also in search of Black women literature. She discovered Zora Neale Hurston, who is a fellow Howard alumni like myself and both of my producers Josh Nelson and JaSaun Buckner. As Gen X’ers, we have tools that our mothers didn’t have. We are more educated, we were able to focus on our careers more and our family later. Many of our mothers dealt with a very patriarchal society, they got kids, got married, and had to contend with women in the workplace and careers in ways that we didn’t have to deal with. They made sacrifices for us, so now we’re standing squarely in the garden, trying to excavate and figure out what’s there. What did they plant in the garden? Did they plant purely for pleasure? What did they bury in the garden? What snakes lie in the garden? What roots and plants are medicinal in the garden? What can be used for Hoodoo and Juju in the garden? And what steps do we have to take to plant our own? So I think that’s where this film enters the conversation and picks up where Alice Walker leaves off.

Filmmaker: In the beginning and end you ask each woman to say their mother’s lineage as far back as they can go.

Lewis: In my spiritual practice, that’s what we do when we start anything that we do. Everyday we say the names of our spiritual lineage and our ancestors on our maternal and paternal side. There’s a rite of passage program that my spiritual family has been in a part of where you call back the names. I am the daughter of this person, I am this person’s granddaughter, etc. As like a self-taught genealogist whose dad used to make me write about my family tree, who would tell me stories about my grandpa who came from Jamaica to Tuskegee and then became a professor at the University of Baton Rouge, and as someone who was told I was a descendant of Henry Christophe, family heritage was always very important to me. When I married my husband who is Nigerian, I didn’t change my name. A lot of times African Americans want to change their name because it is the name of a slave owner. So I was going to disappropriate myself from that history. But my great grandfather from Jamaica had changed his name from another name, so for me it represented him being a free Black man. So that name is tied to my lineage, heritage, and identity.

I was telling my dad something about the film coming out, I don’t know if I said it was a big deal or something, and he said, “Yeah, but, I mean, I don’t know if you’ll remember this but you’re grandpa always used to tell you when you were a little girl that you’re supposed to be great. You’re supposed to do great things, you’re a Lewis.” I have a great aunt who was a writer in the forties, my great grandfather wrote a think piece about Mussolini in a literary magazine in 1945, I’m a fourth generation HBCU graduate, so my dad doesn’t make a big deal whenever I do something. Oh yeah, you got a film coming out? That’s kind of what you’re supposed to do. Gee dad, thanks. [laughs] I was always aware of the fact that I came from a powerful and strong lineage, so I’ve always been open about sharing that with the world.

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