In Conversation with The Black Motherhood Project
The Black Motherhood Project (2021) is a documentary film, currently in post-production, that seeks to investigate the under-represented relationships that exist between black mothers and daughters. On behalf of MAI, Sophia Kier-Byfield spoke with Onyekachi Iwu (creator & director) and Ayo Osobamiro (producer) about the intentions and motivations behind the project, their creative process, and the necessity of telling these stories in the current cultural and political climate.
MAI: Can you tell us how The Black Motherhood Project got started and how you both got involved?
Onyakachi Iwu: I started the project back in 2018, which feels like many years ago now. 2020 has been like seven years packed in one! I was a film major at Columbia, and I was approaching my senior year. The major doesn’t require a thesis, so I decided to design one for myself. I was toying with the idea of a documentary and wanted to feature a narrative that hadn’t been explored often through film. At the same time, I was reflecting on my relationship with my mom, and processing it through the other black women within my community who also had very complicated relationships with their mothers. I then realised that this is not a relationship that’s talked about enough within our community or in media. All of these different strands merged and I thought: what if we have something called The Black Motherhood Project? It was important from the start that the team be all black women and black non-binary folk. I wanted the project to create an opportunity, especially for other black women and black femme folk, to gain film experience and assert themselves within an industry that often erases them.
Ayo Osobamiro: I was interested in the project for several reasons. I’m first-generation Nigerian-American, and motherhood is a central part of the female identity in my community. I had previously expressed to my mom that I’m not sure if I want to be a mother. I’ve always had a complex relationship with why people have children, and I think that as much as women have moved forward in society, the wealth and attainment gaps also tend to be motherhood gaps. My mother was upset with me about this. For her, it was like a personal attack on how she was raising us. I also don’t know anyone in my family who has consciously decided not to have children. It tears a little bit at your identity when something that you’re not sure is for you is supposed to be essential to who you are.
There’s also the fact that black women don’t often get space to sit and discuss our lives and relationships. Whenever black women are talked about seriously, it’s in relation to trauma or racism, rather than just a platform to really think deeply and talk about ourselves. We created a space for ourselves, both emotionally and practically in terms of getting film experience.
MAI: Were there any other personal motivations behind making the film?
OI: It was a method of healing. I was at a point where I was really starting to see my mom as an individual, not just the person who gave birth to me or that I absorb resources from. With that realisation, I had to wrestle with the different traumatic things that happened in my childhood in combination with understanding why those things happened from her perspective. She tried her best; she had her own trauma. A lot of people say that black mothers are single mothers even when there is a man in the house. I think that for white women the motherhood relationship is historically different because when a lot of white women went off into the workforce, they had black nannies at home who took care of the kids. Black mothers have to take care of the kids; they have to mother the husband; they have to work full-time. One of the hardest things as a black daughter is to recognise all of the ways society beats black mothers down, while also trying to make space for our own experiences and traumas.
AO: I agree that the way that society looks at black women adds another layer to motherhood. It takes a lot to look outside of the interpersonal relationship to a broader framework. Personally, it was very much coming to terms with my mom being what society and her own mother taught her to be. The problems I have are not with her as a person, but with what society dictates a mother must be or do.
MAI: Are there any stereotypes that you want to counter with the documentary format?
OI: There’s a section of the film that has a montage of different black mothers in media, from Claire Huxtable in The Cosby Show to Rochelle in Everybody Hates Chris. There’s the stereotype of the “angry black mother” who is always yelling. She yells because someone didn’t put the chicken in the sink, or because the light was left on. This is something that has been joked about on Vine and now TikTok–we’ve created this whole culture of poking fun without really talking about how traumatic it is to be the child being shouted at. This is something we wanted to expand on in the film because she’s not just angry: she’s depressed. She’s sad. She’s lonely. She feels unheard. I’m thinking about my own mother. She would work all day and then come home to a dirty house, and just throw a fit. Black women do so much for people without them even having to ask, and I think there’s this internal feeling of needing other people to help, but it just isn’t happening.
I also think that our understanding of black mothers is derivative of the Mammy figure, who had no other identity besides being there to give. She’s never there to receive. She’s never seen as a whole person. In our interviews for the film we would ask, “Who was your mother before you?” and a lot of people didn’t know what to say!
AO: The tropes even apply in the more positive representations, for example, Claire Huxtable in The Cosby Show. She’s not as full a person in the same way that Cliff is. We don’t know much about Claire as an individual. It took me a long time to really think about my mom as having a personality. In my household, it was traditional in the sense that my mom was getting us ready and dropping us off at school, but with my dad we were really talking about life, not the quotidian minutiae of the domestic routine. The conversations I was having with my mom were around questions such as, “Where’s your backpack? Where’s all your stuff?”, whereas I discussed philosophy and politics with my dad. It’s important to look beyond that and see our mothers as fully formed people.
MAI: What kind of stories are you hoping to portray to subvert these tropes?
OI: We had different question themes with the aim of getting a sense of the overall arc of the relationship. I also wanted to feature a diverse group of people within the African diaspora. We have people who are Afro-Latina, African, Black American, light skin, dark skin, fat, thin, different hair types, trans, cis. I want to make it clear that not everyone we interviewed identifies as a woman, but they do identify as a daughter. We wanted to show the different ways of being a black woman or femme, and all the ways those identities relate to the relationship with the mother. We also interviewed a mom who had just had twins, so we had people who were just beginning to think about their mothers differently, and a mother thinking about what cycles she wants to break as she mothers her daughters.
AO: We did the open call, but then we started picking people based on their different perspectives. We were very intentional about seeking out diversity and trying to make sure that the relationships we featured didn’t just look like our relationships with our own moms. We wanted to work towards a broader understanding of black motherhood and black daughterhood.
MAI: You have a distinct aesthetic. What was your inspiration?
OI: I wanted to use colour to represent the diversity of narratives. For each person, I got a sense of their aura or what I felt towards them. The choices were also driven by their relationships with their moms. For example, there was one subject who had a very positive relationship where they say “I love you” every single day. She was so bubbly, so I felt a peachy colour towards her. What was funny was that once we had chosen the colour for each subject, a lot of them actually had a lot of clothes in that colour.
I was inspired by Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls: the play explores a diverse group of women who are represented by different colours but share the metaphysical dilemma of black womanhood. I was also inspired by the style of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied, which engages with issues such as relationships, community, and childhood from a black queer male perspective, and uses different formats such as interview and montage. I’m also drawn to Solange’s ability to use colour and texture to evoke sensation as part of the experience of her art.
MAI: You held an exhibition last year. Can you tell me a bit about that process?
OI: We are a very D.I.Y group: we got a lot from the school’s costume department or people’s closets, and props and art pieces from the homes of people we know. We held the interviews in my dorm room, pushing the bed and closet in the hallway every Saturday for two semesters. But we got to a point where we needed to raise funds. Beyond that, we wanted to show everyone what we had made. What was really great about the space for the exhibition was that we could project onto multiple walls. All of the projections were different, but simultaneously speaking to each other. This screening method embodied the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship–of course, it’s not just all happy and positive. We wanted to evoke this bittersweet feeling of both laughter and tears.
AO: It was beautiful to be in this intimate space and watch people react. Some people responded by saying that the film was making them think about this relationship for the first time. I hope we get to recreate that again because there is something really moving about being surrounded and encapsulated by this experience. What I want people to take away from the film is the complexity of the relationship, and to not just see black women’s experience as traumatic. There are traumatic aspects, but I have so much joy in my life. We’re so much fuller than that, and I felt like people were picking up on this.
MAI: Is there anything that you have found particularly rewarding or frustrating about the process?
OI: I have had to learn how hard the post-production process is. I was prepared for the production side, and was willing to give up every Saturday for two semesters, but then we ended up with all these hours of footage. I had to figure out how to navigate that, and in the beginning we kept giving ourselves really unreasonable deadlines.
AO: At first, we were thinking one month!
OI: And I think that’s actually related to the whole black Superwoman trope that we talked about earlier. But Covid-19 has forced us to slow down and think about what might still be missing from the film, and about how we can approach it in a healthier way, instead of trying to just push out the project.
AO: For me, it was a case of learning to have the self-confidence to do something like this. One thing I have always admired about Kachi is that she was so determined that we were going to make this film. She believed we were good and qualified enough–she never had any doubts–whereas I’m always looking for permission to do something. I am the type of person who runs into getting more education because I want to feel qualified, but of course, you learn far more about producing by doing it than sitting in a classroom. I really had to start believing in my own abilities.
Also, as black women, there are so few people telling you, “You can do it! You’re good enough!”, but we are intelligent and resourceful. It was really empowering to watch the exhibition and realise that we built this fully-realised project and to take a second to acknowledge that personal and professional growth.
OI: In an industry that is predominantly white and male, it’s important to have something that shows that we are good enough. We know now that we don’t have to keep asking for permission. No matter what, we are just going for it.
MAI: When will the film be finished?
OI: We want to have it done by Spring 2021 and submit it to festivals. Longer-term, I hope we can use the film to build a platform for this conversation to continue, perhaps through a website or having a space for talkbacks. The footage raises so many topics, such as black mortality rates and corporal punishment. The film can only raise the questions, and then those discussions can happen either in people’s private lives or through the platform that we create for them.
AO: I’m really attracted to the idea of talkbacks. I loved how the exhibition and the intimacy of that space allowed for reactive responses. I hope we can recreate that in a different form that can be sustained.
MAI: It really strikes me as having so much potential. Is anything else you would like to add before we finish?
OI: Another reason why we think the film is important is that in the black community, the household has the black man at the centre, particularly the straight, cis man. The perspective is that the world is coming at him, so we must uplift him, make his life better, make him feel appreciated and loved. Our community does not do that for black women. Also, within political movements, black women are behind the scenes doing all of the labour. Black Lives Matter was founded by black women, but I feel that those women are too often erased from it. This is also the case for black trans women and non-binary folk. So, with this film, I wanted to focus on the mother/daughter dynamic because in media and other conversations the relationships in focus within black families are often father/son, father/daughter or mother/son. There is still a big gap in understanding and representation of how the relationships between mothers and daughters function, which is a symptom of that general erasure of black women.
MAI: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with MAI. We can’t wait to see the finished film!
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