Like so many indie filmmakers of the late 20th century, Ayoka Chenzira is not as well-known as she should be, nor has she made as many films as her talent warrants. But the ones she’s made remain impactful.
Her short “Hair Piece: A Film for Nappyheaded People” is celebrated as a first from a Black woman animator, and its focus on Black hair remains as timely as ever. And now “Alma’s Rainbow,” her 1994 feature-film debut centered on Black womanhood, returns to US theaters in a new 4K restoration.
Written, directed and produced by Chenzira — who has gone on to guide a new generation of filmmakers and new-media creators at Spelman for more than 20 years — “Alma’s Rainbow” captures the dynamic between mother and daughter during a pivotal turning point in the younger woman’s life. Like Leslie Harris’s debut feature, 1992’ “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” “Alma’s Rainbow” is one of few features of the era focusing on young Black women.
In “Alma’s Rainbow,” Chenzira presents a broad spectrum of Black womanhood. Alma (Kim Weston-Moran) owns a beauty salon — the ultimate sanctuary for Black women — and strives to provide stability and respectability for her teenage daughter Rainbow (Victoria Gabrielle Platt). That is disrupted when Alma’s sister Ruby (Mizan Nunes Kirby) returns to their Brooklyn home after years of living in Paris.
Alma has worked hard to become a strong, independent woman; Ruby, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong with using her feminine charms to get some of the finer things in life. But Ruby is not totally dependent on men — she is also an artist who, unlike Alma, never abandoned her gifts regardless of how hard it got. Rainbow, a dancer, finds herself drawn to Ruby’s: It’s the artistic side of Ruby to which Rainbow, who is a dancer, is so strongly drawn. That’s also the side that worries her mother the most.
Unlike Ruby, Alma has PTSD from the struggles of trying to make it as an artist, which puts the sisters at odds since Alms wants a much different life for her daughter. Through these three characters, Chenzira presents a complex portrait of Black womanhood that was all too uncommon for the era.
By making Rainbow the sole girl in her hip-hop dance trio, Chenzira strongly illustrates that precarious stage between girlhood and womanhood. The writer-director also highlights Rainbow’s artistic ability, offering glimpses of the energy and rawness of early 1990s hip-hop in the process. As her body matures, Rainbow is understandably confused by those changes — so much so that she initially rejects them through her numerous attempts to mask her body’s transformation until nature forces her to accept them.
A bundle of emotions herself, Alma is both hyper-aware and in denial about Rainbow’s impending physical maturity. Her desire to protect Rainbow from the world’s cruelty to young Black women — as well as from heartbreak and early pregnancy, a point she makes very clear to Rainbow’s would-be suitor Miles (Isaiah Washington in a brief early performance that’s nonetheless impressive) — creates a slight rift between them. By contrast, Ruby captivates Rainbow with her seductive clothing and fancy feminine ways, until eventually, Alma and Rainbow find a new dance with one another.
By referencing Josephine Baker, “Alma’s Rainbow” stakes claim to a cultural lineage that is distinctly female. (Coincidentally, Platt would later play Baker in the 1998 HBO movie “Winchell.”) Dance in its various forms, not just hip-hop, is also important. Chenzira and cinematographer Ronald K. Gray (who also shot the essential “Losing Ground”) use the camera to showcase the many ways in which Black women move, collectively and individually, to express various emotions and moods including attraction, joy, and confidence.
Platt is captivating, capturing both Rainbow’s adolescent innocence and her confusion. Weston-Moran’s Alma softens as she slowly realizes that vulnerability is not a weakness, which allows her to open herself to love with a new suitor while also accepting that her daughter is becoming her own woman with her own dreams.
Today “Alma’s Rainbow” serves as a reminder that Black women filmmakers have long been busy creating a language and space for Black women in cinema. Like her dear friend Julie Dash — director of the standout “Daughters of the Dust” and presenter of this restoration — Chenzira’s intentionality in furthering that mission continues to shine through. Nearly 30 years later, “Alma’s Rainbow” makes the statement, perhaps even louder than ever, that film can and should reflect the lives and realities of Black women.
“Alma’s Rainbow” opens in NYC July 29 and LA August 7.