Black Motherhood through the Lens. Directed and distributed by Adeiyewunmi (Ade) Osinubi, 2021. 33 minutes.

In Our Mothers’ Gardens. Directed by Shantrelle P. Lewis. Los Gatos, CA: Netflix, 2020. 90 minutes.

Reviewed by Kimberly C. Harper

What does Black womanhood look like? Is it full of pain and sorrow, or is it representative of joy and success? Black Motherhood through the Lens and In Our Mothers’ Gardens are two films that help humanize the experiences of Black women by focusing on the actual act of birth and the work of mothering when one raises children, specifically daughters. COVID-19 highlighted the brokenness of America’s public health system and revealed systemic problems at every level. Because COVID-19 and the maternal health crisis were national topics at the same time, reproductive justice activists and birth workers were able to have public conversations about the social determinants of health, about narratives of motherhood and parenting, and about the lack of resources in place to support mothers and families. Black Motherhood through the Lens documents the reproductive experiences from the perspective of four different Black women. The documentary is timely because it focuses specifically on the issues Black women face when dealing with America's reproductive and maternal health system(s), such as infertility, postpartum depression, access to care, and the current Black maternal health crisis all women and health care providers should care about.

Although each story has a different focus, the stereotypical tropes associated with Black women as well as the importance of language choice and bedside manner are two common themes in each story. Because of the film’s length, Black Motherhood through the Lens doesn’t fully unpack the topics; however, the film does a great job of humanizing the experiences of Black mothers. Humanizing Black motherhood is important because Ray (2021) suggests that healthcare professionals often see Black people as data points and numbers as opposed to seeing them as people who enter a medical system controlled by systemic biases and social determinants of health. For educators who want to discuss the rhetoric of health and medicine, social justice and medicine, or feminist epistemologies as a way of understanding multiple identities and oppressions, this film provides an excellent starting point. It also pairs well with texts such as my book The Ethos of Black Motherhood in America (2020), Dani McClain’s We Live for the We (2019), and web resources found at Black Mammas Matter Alliance. Ultimately Osinubi pushes the viewers to look past statistics and news reports to understand Black mothers as whole persons with a range of reproductive experiences.

Director Shantrelle Lewis continues to humanize Black women in In Our Mothers’ Gardens, which is distributed through Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Films and gives viewers a range of stories focusing on the interior lives of Black mothers and daughters. Lewis’s choice to focus on generational relationships helps us understand the choices Black mothers make and how those choices affect their daughters. This movie is demonstrative of the Ghanaian Andinkra symbol Sankofa, which means to go back and get. It is a principle that suggests individuals must know their past in order to have a fruitful future. As such, the women in this film remember and critically assess the lives of their mothers and grandmothers as a way to engage in their own self-discovery. One of the most powerful questions asked in the film is, “How did generational trauma show up in your family?” This question is an excellent starting point for scaffolding class discussions around Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (2014) theory of intersectionality and the interlocking oppressions in Black and Brown communities. Covering topics such as ancestral memory and faith, radical self-care and healing, and resistance and strength help paint a picture of how Black women survive. Lewis’s film is a complement to Black feminist scholarship like Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990), Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought edited by Beverly Guy-Sheftall (1995), any of bell hooks’s writings, but specifically All about Love: New Visions (2001), Brittany Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower (2018), Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot (2021), Moya Bailey’s Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance (2021), and, of course, Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983). Collectively the stories in the film support what Black feminists have long discussed, and that is (1) the need to render Black women visible, (2) the need for Black women to heal themselves, and (3) the need for Black women to feel joy despite the systemic oppressions surrounding their lives. Both films represent excellent examples of the experiences of motherhood through the eyes of Black women.

Works Cited

Bailey, Moya. 2021. Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. New York: New York University Press.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Cooper, Brittney. 2018. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. New York: St. Martin’s.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 2014. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: New Press.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed. 1995. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: New Press.

Harper, Kimberly C. 2020. The Ethos of Black Motherhood in America: Only White Women Get Pregnant. Lanham, MD: Lexington.

hooks, bell. 2001. All about Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow.

Kendall, Mikki. 2021. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. New York: Penguin Random House.

McClain, Dani. 2019. We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood. New York: Bold Type Books.

Ray, Keisha S. 2021. “Going beyond the Data: Using Testimonies to Humanize Pedagogy on Black Health.” Journal of Medical Humanities 42 (February): 725-35.

Walker, Alice. 1983. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt.

Kimberly C. Harper ( is an associate professor in the Department of English at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University where she teaches courses in technical and professional communication. Dr. Harper researches and writes about Black maternal health and the rhetorical choices of medical practitioners and the link between the creative, ancestral memories found in African American quilting traditions. She can be reached on Instragram @nuttyprofessor1891 and her website