Feel the Love: Ayoka Chenzira on Alma’s Rainbow

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.

In the credits you thanked both Kathleen Collins and Waldo Salt, both of whom passed before the film came to fruition. What were those relationships like?

Kathleen was my daughter’s godmother. We met, I actually don’t remember the first time I met her. You have these friends in your life and you just feel like you’ve known them forever, and maybe even from other worlds. Kathleen was a very special spirit in that she grew up in a small community. She studied at the Sorbonne. She was a philosopher. She was not afraid to speak her mind. She taught at City College for a number of years. She ran the film program there and she called me one day and said that she was going to go on sabbatical. And asked if I would take her place at City College while she was on sabbatical. What I didn’t know at the time, is that she was dying. She knew she was dying and she made a space for me, at that institution, essentially setting me up to take over for her without telling me that she was dying. So it took me a long time to come to terms with that, because we were close. I was like, why couldn’t she just tell me? But you know Kathleen did things in her own way. She would often say to me, “I know you love all this world of experimentation. It is perfect for you to be at a college or university so that you can continue to feed yourself while you’re making all of this very expensive experimental work.” So, you know, that was Kathleen.

I met Waldo Salt when I was at Sundance. He and I took an instant liking to each other. He said, “You know, I’m going to tell you some of the secrets of Hollywood, and I’m probably going to get killed for it.” He had an apartment in New York, and I was living in New York, so when he was in New York, I would go to his apartment, and we would talk about screenwriting. It so happened that “Midnight Cowboy” is one of my favorite films and he wrote that adaptation. So I just spent a lot of time learning. Learning about screenwriting and story structure and storytelling from him. He also shared some of the challenges that he had in his life and his challenges with the industry, which was very helpful. There’s two people in my life who have been very open about what their experiences were, what their experiences were like in Hollywood. One was Waldo Salt and the other was Omar Sharif, and both of them have a very special place in my heart as a result.

I always love to hear an Omar Sharif story. He was such a poetic actor.

Many, many years ago, “Alma’s Rainbow” was playing at a film festival in Milan. I was invited to show “Alma’s Rainbow,” and I arrived for dinner late because my plane came in late. At the restaurant there was a table full of filmmakers and people associated with the festival. I turned to somebody and I said that guy over there looks a lot like Omar Sharif. And they said, well, it is and then he said, come sit by me. And the rest is history. I think we consumed about 14 bottles of wine. And tongues got looser and looser and looser.

He was my host for three days. He allowed me to photograph him for three days and just shared incredible stories about how he learned to gamble. His wife had a clitorectomy, which makes it harder to satisfy women who have clitorectomy. She became addicted to a substance and he needed to feed his family. It was just all really on the table and messy and complicated as life could be. I think one of the heartbreaking stories was that when he was initially signing his first contract to do a series of movies, he didn’t know that the amount of money was for all the movies and not just one. Also when he fell out of favor, how he didn’t have the best table at a restaurant anymore. That people really snubbed him and were unkind, as people often can be.

When you were developing “Alma’s Rainbow” Rosalind Cash was involved. Could you talk about how the casting evolved?

I took Rosalind Cash, Tisha Campbell, and Anna Horsford to Sundance with me. At that time, Euzhan Palcy was the first Black woman to go to Sundance, I was the second. So I got a call from Sundance saying they had a pool of actors that they work with, but they said quite frankly they didn’t have any African Americans in the pool and were there people that I would like to work with? So that’s how those three women got Sundance. Afterwards. Rosalind went on to do another film so she was not available. I think Anna Horsford was doing a television show. So I started from scratch.

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