Ayoka Chenzira’s 1994 family dramedy screens at MMoCA’s Rooftop Cinema at dusk on August 17.
Since the early 1980s, writer, director, and animator Ayoka Chenzira has been one of the most integral Black voices in American media, crafting socially-minded and often transgressive short films. A decade after 1984’s Hair Piece, she ventured into narrative features with Alma’s Rainbow (1994), a partly autobiographical story “about a young girl trying to figure it out.” It was originally conceived as an Afterschool Special, but Chenzira developed the concept into a more lavish production at Sundance Institute in the early 1990s.
As Alma’s Rainbow approaches its official 30th anniversary, Kino Lorber and Milestone Films have restored and re-released the spirited family dramedy. And for this Rooftop Cinema presentation on Thursday, August 17, at 8:20 p.m., the film’s incredibly rich Brooklyn milieu and gripping cultural verve are sure to be enhanced and complemented on the sculpture-garden stage atop Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). Tickets are $7, but entry is free for MMoCA members.
Among the landscape of Gen X coming-of-age features of its era, Alma’s Rainbow demonstrates the indisputable value of a lived experience outside mainstream homogenization. Chenzira crafts a space for female agency and Black culture to be center stage, literally, in a narrative that foregrounds the social codes of performative behavior. That’s a relevant dilemma for the teenage Rainbow Gold (Victoria Gabrielle Platt), as she leads a street-dancing crew, the A-Tracks, as a b-girl with two other distracted b-boys. It’s also channeled through her worldly, larger-than-life Aunt Ruby (Mizan Nunes), a Josephine Baker-type diva with many suitors and benefactors, who suddenly appears after a 10-year absence. Ruby was at one time part of a serenading duo, The Flamingo Sisters, with Rainbow’s stern cosmetologist mother Alma (Kim Weston-Moran).
The film particularly studies gendered performance in the colorful spectrum of personalities that whirl around Rainbow. (The Gold family’s vivacity and aspirational, yet simultaneously dated, glamor are embodied in more than name.) Rainbow finds herself resisting the “tomboy” labels her male peers throw at her, and inevitably drawn into Ruby’s ritzy affectations and spell. Not only does Ruby ingratiate herself into her sister and niece’s lives, but she seems thrilled at the prospect of mentoring Rainbow as her more petite ingénue.
Chenzira’s use of grainy black-and-white home movie-simulated flashbacks (one of which opens the film) also aid in this dichotomy; the technique lends the film a wistful, psychological angle about a faded dynamic and bygone bliss in the inexorable changes of life. Those intermittent visualizations eloquently weave through scarred memories that recall (and perhaps influenced) the elegantly haunted mood of Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou (1997). But it’s Peggy Dillard Toone’s lustrous, luxurious set decoration in the Golds’ home salon parlor and Sidney Kai Innis’ ornate and dazzlingly original costume design that command all eyes on the collective beauty of the women and the tensions of a story being written in the present moment.
That story does seem somewhat obscured in the edit, as scenes impulsively leap between the adult lives of the Golds (and their men) and then back to Rainbow’s crisis of identity. But true to its title of adjoined forenames, Alma’s Rainbow is rather defined by the strength of the characterizations and its representation of a middle-class Black family in New York 30 years ago. Other than its obvious palpable pleasures, Chenzira’s film illustrates the bold promise of inclusivity in American cinema that was not quite realized in its era, but is now etched into the annals of the medium’s history.
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