First Run Features
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Cast: Christine’a Rainey, Christopher Rainey, PJ Rainey, William Withers
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/17/17
Opens: Dec.1 in Philadelphia; Dec. 8 in NY; Dec. 15 in L.A.; then wider.
A brief segment of this loving study of an African-American family in North Philadelphia, filmed over a period of almost ten years, finds Donald Trump trying to persuade African-Americans and Hispanics to vote for him. Why? Because “what do you have to lose?” While African-American spokespersons nationwide condemned the speech because it implied that all African-Americans and Hispanics are living in poor neighborhoods, it is perhaps an irony that director-cinematographer Jonathan Olshefski, obviously a progressive, situates his study inside a community that is probably the kind that Trump envisions for all Black families.
Christopher “Quest” Rainey, his wife Christine’a Rainey, their son William and daughter PJ live in an urban ghetto probably like the kind that Trump may understand, yet the Rainey family do not agree with Trump’s condescension. “He doesn’t know how we live,” offers Ma, whom we see first as a kid and now as she is graduating from school. Those mostly conservative folks who wonder why Quest and Christine’a have not pulled themselves up by their bootstraps should pay attention to one bit of dialogue between PJ and her mother. The young girl wants money for school supplies, about $100, but she also wants a dress. Her mother, called “Ma,” as a nickname for a character in August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is sympathetic but informs the young woman that she can barely afford the Benjamin for a school necessity, much less for a modest dress. Implied is that you can’t rise on the economic scale unless you have some money to get the education you need, and so the poverty is passed on to other generations.
The Rainey family had the bad luck to watch their son diagnosed with a brain tumor, but now, as an adult William is in remission. In a more graphic misfortune, one that should not have had to happen, PJ loses an eye from a stray bullet, the result of a fight between two or more people on the street—who to this day have not been found. What’s more, PJ apologizes to her parents for getting shot. On a more pleasant note, Quest has a weekly radio program discussing community relations, and during the week he, having overcome addiction, runs a recording studio where neighborhood young people are free to come in to practice their rap. For her part, equally pro-community Ma works at a shelter for abused women. One has to wonder how, between the two of them, they have enough money just for themselves to say nothing about providing for their son and daughter.
During the ten years that Jonathan Olshefski trains his lenses on the Raineys, he would have time to pick up signs of exuberance in the neighborhood. This comes out dramatically as he catches a uniformed parade of his neighbors, and spots a torn American flag hanging on a residence in an area of housing that has caught their share of bullet holes as though north Philly were a war zone.
This is how perhaps a majority of our country’s African-Americans live. These are not the quarters of Barack Obama, or Beyoncé or Rihanna, superstars that have transcended their group’s barriers. Though political discussions involving the Raineys and their neighbors are few, we can’t help noting that just months ago, three states that voted for Obama twice could not overcome a presumed lack of excitement for the Democratic candidate. We may infer that they voted for Obama as “one of us,” helping to give the President the electoral votes he needed, then simply stayed away from the voting booths in 2016, having seen that the first African-American President did not turn their communities into Shangi-La.
Movies depicting the lives of an underclass are not difficult to find. In this year’s glitziest entry, “Get Out,” a rich white family is satirized for having progressive ideas while at the same time acting out an agenda of less visible racism. “Quest” is obviously not in the same class, being far less expensive to make and involving not highly paid actors but real people. “Quest” shows us a cross-section of working-class Blacks in a most authentic style, a film that may not appeal to typical filmgoers for whom “Thor” is the movie of the year. But in its homespun way is a better guide to what goes on within a depressed urban community.
Unrated. 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – A-