Mothers and Daughters: Ayoka Chenzira on the Dance of Alma’s Rainbow

Alma Gold (Kim Weston-Moran) watching over her sleeping child Rainbow (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) in Alma’s Rainbow (1994).
Alma Gold (Kim Weston-Moran) watching over her sleeping child Rainbow (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) in Alma’s Rainbow (1994).

Filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira on the restoration and reemergence of Alma’s Rainbow, flamingo figurines and the importance of dance and music in her life and art.

A coming-of-age story centered around three Black women in Brooklyn, Alma’s Rainbow was made by writer and director Ayoka Chenzira in the early 1990s and sadly has been hidden from the world for most of the three decades since.

This was partly Chenzira’s own decision, as she has fought hard to retain the rights to almost all of her work as an artist over the years, nurturing her creations and making sure not to let them be held by anyone who doesn’t have safe hands. Those hands have come in the form of Milestone Films and Kino Lorber, who have worked tirelessly on a new restoration of Alma’s Rainbow, and are bringing it to the world in its full, deserved glory.

Teenager Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) lives with her mother Alma (Kim Weston-Moran) in a home that houses the hair salon Alma runs for a living. When Alma’s lively sister Ruby (Mizan Kirby) returns from Paris after a decade away, the mother and aunt present differing views of the world that show Rainbow paths she could take as she’s figuring out who she’s going to become.

My mother was a powerful and creative spirit. In many ways an outlier.

—⁠Ayoka Chenzira

Of course, nothing is ever so simple. These opposing identities ultimately lead to Rainbow questioning her burgeoning self, navigating her identity with questions of beauty, self-image and the rights Black women have over their bodies. As Kino’s statement for the film aptly summarizes, “Alma’s Rainbow highlights a multi-layered Black women’s world where the characters live, love, and wrestle with what it means to exert and exercise their agency.”

In celebration of the restoration’s release, we spoke with Ayoka Chenzira about the film’s history, constructing the characters and the world they inhabit and how details from her own life helped to shape Alma’s Rainbow.

Rainbow’s life takes a big shift upon the arrival of her long-distant aunt Ruby (Mizan Kirby).
Rainbow’s life takes a big shift upon the arrival of her long-distant aunt Ruby (Mizan Kirby).

It’s been quite a while since you made Alma’s Rainbow and with the help of Milestone and Kino, it’s finally getting the release it’s always deserved. How are you feeling, knowing people will have the chance now to view the film?
Ayoka Chenzira: The reemergence of Alma’s Rainbow with the support of Milestone and Kino does feel miraculous. I am still floating on a cloud after seeing the work projected at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. It’s a special moment when you feel that the audience is in tune with your work—and the restoration is gorgeous. Regarding the release, I am trying to maintain the perspective that everything is where it should be at the time that it should be, even if you think it should be otherwise. The loving support for the film that is being shown now was not there in 1993—I don’t mean from the audience, but from the distributors.

When you were going through the restoration process, combing back over the film after all of these years, what were some of the thoughts and feelings you had on it that stood out most to you?
I am grateful to be wired in a way that I stay committed to my work regardless of how it is or isn’t received. I thought about how challenging it was to make work, but also the joy that I experienced. I love the process of making and discovering—figuring out how to do things that I don’t necessarily know how to fully do. For example, I didn’t know how to create animation when I made Hair Piece and I hadn’t made a 35mm feature before making Alma’s Rainbow. But I did know that I wanted to tell those stories, and that I could figure it out because I had desire, commitment and training. I thought of the people who helped to make Alma’s Rainbow who have passed on. I thought about how heavy 35mm prints are and how getting them out of DuArt Film Lab, which had the slowest elevator in New York, and onto the subway made me feel sure that my uterus was going to fall to the ground.

Filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira surrounded by negatives and prints as she prepares to ship her work to Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive.
Filmmaker Ayoka Chenzira surrounded by negatives and prints as she prepares to ship her work to Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive.

Growing up, you lived in the same building where your mother was running a beauty salon, which is similar to Rainbow’s living situation with her mother. How does that world of the beauty/hair salon impact the life of a young Black woman growing into herself? What significance does that place hold?
I earned a BFA in film at NYU, a MA in education from Columbia University Teachers’ College, and a PhD in digital media from Georgia Tech. My most cherished education was obtained in my mother’s beauty parlor. The parlor was in the apartment building where we lived. It was located in a section where there was a dentist and a doctor, both African-American. She was the owner and sole technician.

It is a place where women came together to share stories. It was a safe space where I learned what women were thinking and experiencing. In the parlor, they removed their armor and settled into the special world that my mother created for them. It was also a frightening world because I heard stories of domestic violence, sexism, racism, and police brutality. Early on I was determined not to be what I would call a girly girl. My armor was the suit of what was then called a tomboy. It kept certain people, boys in particular, at bay.

I found the home you created in the film so wonderfully lived-in, so real and intricately detailed. Those little flamingo figurines? I’m obsessed, I want them in my home. What was your process in putting the home together to make it feel so alive?
Thank you for appreciating the home. Most distributors of the film found it implausible that an African-American woman could own such a beautiful home, which was odd to me. People had beautiful homes: everything from Victorian mansions to apartments, but always beautiful. Beauty is not necessarily connected to money. Sometimes people have money/can be rich and not have taste or a sense of beauty. The home that my mother made was beautiful and she made many things from scratch—she had an incredible sense of style, and her aesthetic choices were unlike any other in our neighborhood.

The costume designer, Sidney Kai Innis, found the house. She was friends with the internationally renowned model Peggy Dillard Toone. Peggy and her husband, artist Lloyd Toone, were restoring a 110-year-old Victorian house in Harlem. The house had all the wood and feeling that I remembered as a child and fit the film’s story well. The flamingos are part of my history—the apartment building where I grew up was once called the Flamingo. Peggy and Lloyd are artists and understood what I was trying to accomplish. They pulled on their vintage collection of objects (Lloyd had an antique store) to help tell the story. The sculptures in the home are the work of Lloyd and they are made from the soles of shoes.

Alma’s own unfulfilled dreams have led to her struggling to allow her daughter to flourish.
Alma’s own unfulfilled dreams have led to her struggling to allow her daughter to flourish.

I was also reading about how your mother really encouraged your endeavors and ambitions as an artist, which I found quite interesting thinking about how close it sounds like you were with your mother and how much the film focuses on that dynamic between Rainbow and Alma. What did that relationship with your mother mean for you in your pursuit as an artist?
My mother was a powerful and creative spirit. In many ways an outlier. She wore beautiful clothes (made from her redesign of Vogue, Butterick, and Simplicity patterns) and rode her bicycle in high heels until age 75. She often said to me that women weren’t aware that sneakers make your legs look ugly and there is no reason to be ugly in the world.

We were not particularly close until later in life when I think we better understood each other. She was bold and fearless growing up at a time when Black women were to be silent and married. She was outspoken and left my father when I was an infant, finally divorcing him. I was super sensitive and often embarrassed by her sense of taking on the world. Little did I know until my mid-twenties how much I would call on that spirit within me. Our challenge was that when I expressed my bold spirit she forgot to tell me that it couldn’t be expressed with her. So, we butted heads during my teen years.

While Alma’s Rainbow is certainly a coming-of-age story about Rainbow, it’s also very much about Alma herself, both as a mother and as her own woman. What are some of the things Alma is working through at this time in her life—as a mother, as a sister, as a woman in the world?
The film is about dreams, freedom and survival. Alma and Ruby formed a singing act called The Flamingo Sisters. Alma put everything into it but it didn’t work out. She retreated to an emotional place where she could always be in control. In short, her story is a push and pull of fear and control. She can’t allow Rainbow to grow because she has stopped growing. She can’t connect with Ruby, in part because Ruby betrayed her, but also she represents a time in her life when Alma was more open and trusting and life threw her a curve. She is not nimble.

Rainbow with her dance group partners Pepper (Keyonn Sheppard) and Sea Breeze (Roger Pickering).
Rainbow with her dance group partners Pepper (Keyonn Sheppard) and Sea Breeze (Roger Pickering).

Dance and music have been a major part of your life, from going to the opera as a child and studying ballet to your earlier work like your short films on dancer and choreographer Syvilla Fort and Zajota and the Boogie Spirit. What role does dance and music play in Alma’s Rainbow
Dance is my favorite art form. I am empowered and humbled by how the body can communicate. I am the child of a woman who wanted to be an artist, but there was no space in her parents’ house for such. So, I received the artistic lessons. My mother purchased a baby grand piano for me, even though I could barely play scales at the time. She was not wealthy but had upper middle-class sensibilities. She knew a man who had an antique store in the neighborhood, and he offered a reasonable price. She saved money and purchased the piano. I don’t know how long it took her.

I played the cello in the school orchestra. I had ballet and modern lessons. I danced with a company. Years ago when I first toured Africa, there were places where I could not speak the language, but at parties we all danced and understood each other through movement. Zajota was created out of that experience. Syvilla was my dance teacher and I loved her and reveled in the Katherine Dunham dance technique that she taught. So yes, dance and music play big parts in my life.

Dance is my favorite art form. I am empowered and humbled by how the body can communicate.

—⁠Ayoka Chenzira

While the film is wonderfully centered on women, we often see the bleed of how the patriarchy impacts life. There are incredibly effective scenes of Rainbow struggling with gender dynamics, and her mother and aunt imparting wisdom on her related to that. How does the idea of gender roles and existing within the patriarchal structure impact the lives of these women as depicted in the film?
Let me begin with talking about the men. I love the character Blue. He is not the romantic package that Alma is hoping for, but he is so comfortable in his own skin that he wins her over. Underdo is full of himself and is used to being the rescuer—a big daddy if you will, but Alma is a business woman and she holds her ground with him. They once had an affair which he has hopes of rekindling but she’s not interested. It’s strictly business for her as she continues to repay the loan that she got from him to open her business. He thinks he can entice her with money but he can’t.

The boys in Rainbow’s life are struggling with what it means to become a man. Pepper understands girls as sexual objects and doesn’t know what to do when challenged by Rainbow around the dance team’s choreography, which Rainbow is taking over. Sea Breeze on the other hand is caught between Pepper and Rainbow. He likes Rainbow but is not sexually attracted to her, and eventually stands up to Pepper for his crude remarks and disrespect of Rainbow. He sees Rainbow as a friend. Seldom do we see adolescent boys hold their male friends accountable for disrespecting women. Sea Breeze does.

Rainbow hangs with the boys in part because she doesn’t know how to be the girl that people expect her to be. When Alma unwraps the breast binder that Rainbow wears it’s a moment of deep awareness for her. Alma realizes that she needs to help her daughter become the girl/woman that she wants to be.

Ruby and Alma have very different approaches for life, and for how Rainbow should be raised.
Ruby and Alma have very different approaches for life, and for how Rainbow should be raised.

The idea of ambition was something that kept coming to my mind while watching the film: the ambitions we push to maintain, the ones we feel like we have to give up as we get older and see certain restrictions the world places on us, and how those ideas manifest (or are pushed against) in both Alma and Ruby. What is Rainbow learning about the world and the space it has (or doesn’t have) for her at this time in her life?
The overall view is that Rainbow must choose—that the situation is binary. Alma is one thing—Ruby is the opposite. I see Alma and Ruby as versions of each other. Both are dated, one is a more glamorous version of the other, but their ideas are dated. Alma doesn’t trust people/men and has no male friendships. Ruby’s relationship with men is transactional and she’s holding onto a fantasy of being a version of Josephine Baker so how she thinks about and uses her body is different than Alma’s but they are both thinking about their bodies, just in different ways. Rainbow represents new possibilities.

Alma’s Rainbow has a very organic rhythm, arrhythmic in a way but establishing its own flow in moving through its scenes. Could you tell me about some of your stylistic influences on the film?
The visual aesthetic in terms of photography is inspired by a period of filmmaking where the camera doesn’t move much—I think of this as dated, which works well for the story. It is also practical in that the house has lots of mirrors and the angles are often avoiding the mirrors. So the question becomes how to bring the frames to life. Performance, color palette, and deep focus played big parts in the visual design.

Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Blake Edward’s alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a favorite of Chenzira’s mother.
Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Blake Edward’s alcoholism drama Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a favorite of Chenzira’s mother.

What were some of the most foundational films for you and how did they ignite that spark that made you fall in love with cinema and want to become a filmmaker?
My mom loved movies. As a kid, I was dragged to every age-inappropriate movie there was. I think she loved the production design, in particular costume design—this probably would have been the work of Edith Head. The movies that I remember are Days of Wine and Roses, Ben-Hur, anything with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, The Swimmer, Valley of the Dolls, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Graduate, The Birds, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Midnight Cowboy. If it was in the ’60s, I probably saw it. I was also taken to many movies starring Barbra Streisand. My mom respected her because she wouldn’t get plastic surgery on her nose despite the pressure. Lots of respect for Barbra.

I was obsessed with Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif. The latter I spent time with in Milan at a festival showing my work. He was my host and allowed me to photograph him. Waldo Salt, the writer of Midnight Cowboy—I met him when Alma’s Rainbow was being developed at Sundance. He became my mentor and I would visit him for writing sessions when he was in New York.

Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to receive theatrical distribution in the United States.
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman to receive theatrical distribution in the United States.

As noted, Alma’s Rainbow was one of the first films directed and produced by an African-American woman, and it feels like a film that will allow so many Black women, particularly young Black women who haven’t often seen themselves on screen, feel seen, and it’s so exciting to think about it being back out there in the world now. What are some of the films that make you feel most seen and how do they resonate with you?
Alma’s Rainbow was one of the first 35mm feature films written, directed and produced by an African-American woman. I don’t look to films to be seen for my values. There aren’t many spaces where we can experiment and put forward conversations or characters that go beyond the ordinary. A few films that I think are original in that they put forward characters and situations that were beyond ordinary are Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Neema Barnette’s Civil Brand, Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman. There are more in the short film category.

Alma's Rainbow has long been and continues to rightly be championed by Black women across the industry—from Ava DuVernay to Julie Dash to Ruby Dee to Maya Cade—and you yourself have focused so much of your life on education and artistic guidance for Black women. Tell me a bit about how incredible that support system is, what it means to be a Black woman artist and that role of uplifting one another in this world.
Generally, people should lift up people. It’s one of our roles as humans, one of our responsibilities. I am grateful for the public support of friends and colleagues. Their support has helped to push me along and to make my work known to a broader audience.

My additional support system is not in the public eye. My husband Tim Richardson is my biggest fan and helps to make it possible for me to brave the world even on days when the world is not so welcoming. My daughter HaJ Chenzira-Pinnock has long been a creative partner. Her unique wit and sense of storytelling and analysis have often helped me to find the right tone for some of my creations. She recently served as the dramaturg for the Broadway show POTUS. I am the Chair of the Division of the Arts at Spelman College—a place that was built for the success of Black women and that too has served as a support system for me.


Alma’s Rainbow’ is playing now in NY at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with additional showings to come at the Roxy starting August 11 and the Santa Monica Laemmle in LA starting August 12. Further theatrical dates will follow, which you can find on Kino Lorber’s website.

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