DVD Review – Quest (Black History Month)
For Black History Month 2018, I wanted to spotlight films that were about black people or that at least had a black person as the protagonist. Most of what I’ve written about have been narratives or works of fiction. I did write about director Rel Dowdell’s Where’s Daddy, which is a documentary about black men and child support. Dowdell is based out of Philadelphia and conducts a series of interviews of people in the City of Brotherly Love.
This documentary by Jonathan Olshefski is also set in Philadelphia. It’s more than just a series of interviews. It actually follows a family in North Philly over the course of eight years documenting their lives, their ups and downs. Why only eight years? It could be coincidence, but Olshefski seems to have timed his documentary to span the course of President Barack Obama’s entire term. Following an African-American family in Philly during the first African-American family’s stay in the White House sounds like an interesting hook.
Thankfully, there’s more to this movie than just that hook. In fact, Olshefski’s movie, which premiered at 2017’s Sundance Film Festival, isn’t really about politics. Some politicians are mentioned, but politics are more or less back-drop for issues on the streets. It doesn’t talk about health care or Obamacare in general terms. It does so by actually depicting someone dealing with health issues. Same goes for crime or even child support. It really delves into the lives of this family, this family being the Rainey family of North Philadelphia.
Christopher Rainey is the patriarch of the family. He’s also the main character here, as it were, though the film is really an ensemble. He’s a music producer who works at the radio station, WURD 900AM in Fishtown and whose nickname is “Quest.” He’s not to be confused with Questlove, the music producer, drummer and founding member of The Roots, a hip hop band that originated in Philly too. Quest hasn’t been as successful as Questlove. Quest makes ends meet with a second job of delivering newspapers. An early scene shows him tossing papers with incredible accuracy, almost without having to look but always landing right on people’s doorsteps.
Christine’a Rainey is the matriarch of the family. She’s just as much a protagonist here too, getting equal amount of screen time. Her nickname is “Ma Quest” and she runs a homeless shelter. This is probably because she was left homeless after surviving a house fire, which did scar her arm. She’s still beautiful and still very strong. She fell in love with Quest and he with her, despite their differences. He’s more into cartoons, whereas she likes CSI, though theirs is a heartwarming love story.
Both Quest and Ma Quest talk briefly about their past lives and having children with other people, but the focus here is with two children in particular, their son, William Withers, and their youngest daughter, PJ Rainey. What happens to William and PJ are surprises that this narrative brings that are heartbreaking. William and PJ’s lives are touched by issues of health, crime and sexuality. Watching them and the whole family deal with those issues are eye-opening in more ways than one.
A through-line though is the music. Quest shepherds aspiring rappers. Often times, he has to manage their problems. One rapper in particular has drug and alcohol abuse on his plate. Quest himself talks about growing up in the Diamond Street projects while the crack-cocaine epidemic hit. He now uses rap music to do more positive things and keep people off the street with his freestyle Fridays.
At one point, Olshefski’s cameras capture a Philly block party and later they capture a march by Philadelphia Ceasefire. In both scenes, we see the triumph and the tragedy of the city. That’s essentially why this documentary is so great. It shows us wondrously those both sides. It was overlooked by the Academy, but it is nominated for Best Documentary at the Spirit Awards and is the winner of the Truer Than Fiction Award.
Not Rated but for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.
Available on DVD and VOD.