Originally released in 1994, Ayoka Chenzira’s striking feature film “Alma’s Rainbow” is a coming-of-age tale that follows a girl named Rainbow (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) as she grows up in the beauty parlor run by her loving, but strict mother Alma (Kim Weston-Moran). When Alma’s flighty sister Ruby (Mizan Nunes) returns after a decade away working as an entertainer in Paris, the girl, who wants to be a dancer herself, sees another way of living life. While Ruby’s presence opens up old wounds for Alma, it also inspires her to open up to life again. Filled with vibrant color and rich details, “Alma’s Rainbow” is a film you won’t forget.
Its new 4K restoration from Academy Film Archive, Film Foundation, and Milestone Films, comes four years after her short film “Hair Piece: A Film for Nappy Headed People” was added to the National Film Registry for its significance to American film heritage. Like her mentor Kathleen Collins, Chenzira’s films purposefully push back on what a “Black” film can be. While she earned her BFA from NYU, her Master’s in Education from Columbia, and her Ph.D. from Georgia Tech, she cites her mother’s beauty parlor as where she got her degree about life.
Known for restoring and distributing the works of directors like Collins, Charles Burnett, Billy Woodberry, and Shirley Clarke, Milestone Films, who has recently partnered with Kino Lorber, is an ideal fit to restore and distribute the works of Chenzira. Their commitment to not only expanding the canon, but to present as many works from filmmakers as possible allows those filmmakers the chance to have their work understood as a holistic body of work. After seeing their wonderful work on “Alma’s Rainbow,” I can’t wait to see what other gems from Chenzira are waiting to be rediscovered.
RogerEbert.com spoke to Chenzira over Zoom about discovering storytelling in her mother’s beauty parlor, being mentored by Kathleen Collins and Waldo Salt, and the need for complexity in films about Black life.
Could you talk a bit about the inspirations that you drew from your life and your mother’s own beauty parlor?
I think my first real introduction to storytelling was in my mother’s beauty parlor. It was a place where women came and gathered and shared a lot of information. And as an only child, I think I sucked a lot of that up, in addition to my mom, really, really, really loving movies. I think one of the things that she really loved about the movies were the costumes and the wardrobe, because she made clothes from scratch, or she redesigned like Vogue patterns and Butterick and Simplicity patterns. She had an incredible sense of style, and beauty. So at a very young age, I was exposed to wardrobe and color and material and texture. I also grew up in the Catholic Church during a time when only Latin was spoken. It was like a big costume drama. I think those things, the work that my mother was doing and being in that Sunday space at this big costume drama, this operatic space, informed some of the tone and color and shape of “Alma’s Rainbow.”
From a story perspective, I saw a lot of young girls and their moms in crisis, because the daughter was struggling to grow up and the mother just had her thumb on the child so hard that neither of them could move forward. I did grow up with a very strong, tenacious, opinionated parent who told me not to take no for an answer except when I was dealing with her. So you know, you’ve got two strong-headed people in the house. I wanted to explore that space where a young girl’s trying to grow up and the parent in some ways has just stopped growing, and is almost choking on it, paralyzed by fear. So they become an overprotective parent in hopes that the child will be safe. But of course children, you don’t own them. And they have to find their way in the world and hopefully with your blessing and your guidance.