While all Black filmmakers need more recognition, the award-winning independent producer, director, animator, Ayoka Chenzira has been particularly in need of rediscovery. Visual media have been made richer by her focus on developing stories of Black life and educating the next generation of Black filmmakers, including her daughter HaJ, her collaborator on HERadventure, an online, interactive fantasy film posted on Chenzira’s website and YouTube channel. Now, Academy Film Archive, The Film Foundation, and Milestone Films have produced a 4K restoration of her only feature film, Alma’s Rainbow (1994), in which a teenage girl, her mother, and her aunt all come of age in different ways.
Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) is a tomboy whose hip-hop dance crew comes apart as her two male partners become more interested in chasing girls than in rehearsing. Her mother, Alma (Kim Weston-Moran), gave up her sister singing act to make a living for the two of them by opening a beauty salon in the Brooklyn home she inherited from their mother. On the tenth anniversary of the founding of Alma’s salon, her long-absent sister, Ruby (Mizan Nunes Kirby), returns. Rainbow is fascinated with her flamboyant, larger-than-life aunt and hopes to follow in her footsteps as a singer-dancer, setting up a clash between Ruby and Alma, who wants her daughter to seek a secure future.
Alma’s Rainbow is itself a festive rainbow of color and community, replete with discrete scenes loaded with humor and humanity. The beauty salon is the wonderful gathering place for the neighborhood women, all of whom are deeply involved in getting the all-business Alma together with Blue (Lee Dobson), a handyman who clearly is sweet on her.
As Alma begins to yield to her desire for a relationship, she grows alarmed at Rainbow’s budding sexuality. A scene in which she helps her daughter clean up the blood from her first period shows her surprise at how womanly Rainbow’s body has become. “Stay away from boys,” is the best she can do to keep Rainbow in line, but anyone who has been a parent to a teenager knows how that goes down with Rainbow.
Another plot point is Alma’s work for William B. Underdo III (Sydney Best), the local undertaker who funded her business and would like more than a professional relationship with her. His mint-condition classic car says so much about his character as a respectable older man who, like Alma, just needs to let his hair down.
Ruby, the one character who has no trouble letting loose, provides the manic energy that shakes up the Golds’ straitened life while revealing her almost desperate restlessness. Her flamboyant clothes and costumes contrast the darkly rich wood and traditional furnishings of Alma’s home.
The excellent score by Jean-Paul Bourelly mixes jazz and contemporary sounds in much the same way that cinematographer Ronald K. Gray intersperses sexy dream sequences and black-and-white memories with the bright, crisp present. A rather morbid song written by Chenzira herself for Ruby to perform for her family in Underdo’s funeral home, Beautiful Blackness in the Sky, is a uniquely weird experience. In the end, all of the Gold women confront themselves and their desires for a truly satisfying multigenerational coming-of-age story.