In the ’90s, two decades after Blaxploitation films saved Hollywood, Black faces emerged again on screen. This time, instead of the superheroic criminals that ruled the earlier era, Hollywood turned toward the inner-city. Films like Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, and New Jack City, had moviegoers rushing toward the box office. Though some films like Set It Off and Eve’s Bayou centered on Black women, those stories were few and far between. Films showcasing the Black female experience outside of the context of a violent inner city were almost wholly overlooked.
Now, nearly 30 years after the debut of Dr. Ayoka Chenzira’s glittering coming-of-age drama, Alma’s Rainbow, the film is finally getting the restoration and distribution it deserves.
Set in early ’90s Brooklyn, Alma’s Rainbow follows teenage Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt) as she begins to grapple with her emerging womanhood under the eye of her uptight mother, Alma Gold (Kim Weston-Moran). Though Alma runs a beauty salon from her stunning brownstone, she keeps her beauty and desires confined and contained. The mother/daughter duo’s dynamic is upended when Alma’s dazzling sister Ruby (Mizan Kirby) arrives in town from Paris, showing Rainbow another path to womanhood.
Ahead of Alma’s Rainbow theatrical debut, Shadow and Act spoke with Dr. Chenzira about making the film, returning to it all these years later, and the state of Black women’s stories today.
“Some of [Alma’s Rainbow] is autobiographical, and other parts come from being around young girls as a mom myself and seeing how much they struggle,” Chenzira says. “When the body begins to shift — when emotions are running high, you’re super sensitive, and it’s a new world. The other thing I witnessed is parents, particularly mothers, not fully acknowledging that they too have to grow and develop. Once you become a parent, your growth and life don’t stop there. So many women give their lives over either to the children, to the church, to the man, to whatever. There’s a stunt in the growth. I think this notion of sacrificing for your children is still pervasive in working-class families and very common in families of color. I saw young girls and their mothers struggling with puberty time. I wanted to talk about that kind of tension and also force the mother to begin to take a look at herself.”
Alma’s Rainbow is heartfelt, visually stunning, and poignant for Black girls and women. However, it was deemed unsuitable for the cinema landscape upon its completion. “Part of the cinema story is the story of money and what people think is going to be popular,” Chenzira explains. “It’s a story of what investors want to see. And I truly mean no disrespect to my colleagues at all, but I will say that there was an interest in a certain view of Black American culture, and that view was violently urban. It was, in many cases, pathological. So there was almost a reveling and glory in our stories where pathology was front and center. It was a way of pigeonholing the Black experience. There was no interest in other kinds of narratives. It’s not just Alma’s Rainbow; there are other films where there was not an interest in distribution at that time.”
Alma’s Rainbow initial debut may not have been received how Dr. Chenzira initially imagined. Still, she delighted in the pleasure of writing and later making the film. “A lot of this story was written while I was in motion,” she recalls. “I was living in New York and riding the subway all the time. I was also traveling a lot. So between planes and the subways, I would have this relaxed time to immerse myself in the story. Then somebody said, ‘You should apply to Sundance.’ Suddenly there was this new pressure, and it got into the Sundance Lab and was further developed at Sundance. Eventually, it’s a patchwork quilt to the funding that got this film made from a financial standpoint; I wrote grants. The first big chunk of money came from Channel Four in London. And then I found an investor, Howard Brickner. And then you start to go into the business side of the story.”
Once Dr. Chenzira found the funding for her film, she set out to find the right actors to embody Alma, Rainbow, and Ruby. She found them in Weston-Moran, Platt and Kirby. “I fell in love with all of them as people,” she explains. “By the time we talked the characters through, I trusted them with the characters. These women are die-hard actors primarily from the stage, but they brought joy, beauty, and a commitment to those characters, seeing them and helping lift them off the page.”
The bond that Chenzira formed with her actors and crew still sustains her today, especially now with renewed interest in Alma’s Rainbow. “I think of challenges as teachers,” she says. “So I never fell out of love with the film, even though the people around me in the distribution world couldn’t see or couldn’t value what I saw and valued. I never fell out of love with that work because to do that would be to fall out of love with a piece of me, which I am unwilling to do even to this day. It was disappointing but not discouraging. It was clearly not in sync with what was valued at the time. Some of the distributors had questions and comments because they had not experienced these characters or knew of a Black woman owning a beautiful home. Therefore it could not exist. So there is this assumption of the all-knowing distributor, marketer, or PR person who seemed very unwilling to go on this different kind of journey at that time. [Alma’s Rainbow’s] lack of distribution told me more about the business and the people in the business than anything else.”
The cinema landscape has certainly changed since 1994, and Hollywood is scrambling to keep up. However, Black women still aren’t where they deserve to be in the space of film or television. “In terms of the cinema experience — the large scale in a movie theater experience, very few women of color are getting an opportunity to direct those kinds of films. You’ll find us more in television or the streaming services, but still not a lot,” Chenzira says. “It’s still very, very difficult. Something about the PR machine makes it look like things are much more accessible than they really are. The good news is that there are several incubator programs where writers and directors can get training and exposure. Exposure is a big piece, to be exposed to the people who can say yes to you getting your job in television, for example. I will say more women are working than when I first began.”
Alma’s Rainbow will open theatrically on Friday, July 29 at BAM in NY and on Friday, August 7 at American Cinematheque in LA, with rollout to follow.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.