Jonathan Olshefski’s Quest follows an African-American family in North Philadelphia over a pivotal course of American history: from 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president of the United States, until the presidential election last autumn, capturing, in the process, a microcosm of the country as its hopeful mood curdled. Late in the documentary, we see the Rainey matriarch, Christine’a, watching Donald J. Trump’s plea for blacks to vote for him, asking, “What the hell have you got to lose?” By this point, Olshefski has taken us so deep into this family’s world that the entitled ignorance of Trump’s boast stings with newfound universality.
Quest is political insomuch as it insists that poor black people are human beings deserving of empathy, respect, and inquiry. Olshefski resists platitudes and overarching sentiments, devoting himself to rendering the quotidian textures of this family. Christine’a is called Ma because she works in a shelter, for unsurprisingly pitiful pay, and her fastidious stewardship extends to her own home. She’s the practical one, while her husband, Christopher, known as Quest, is the dreamer working in his shoestring music studio, attempting to break into the rap market. Christine’a and Christopher’s teenage daughter, Pearl, who goes by P.J., initially wants to be a musician as well, and there’s a particularly evocative and beautiful moment in the film where we see her tapping her fingers rhythmically on a splintered windowsill.
Quest was initially conceived as a study of Christopher’s self-made studio, as an examination of how his music serves as a sanctuary from the reliable distractions, tedium, and tragedies of life. But said tedium and tragedy keep interfering per their wont, especially with those struggling for a breakthrough. Christine’a’s 21-year-old son, William, is diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor soon after his son is born, and, later, P.J. is hit in the head by a stray bullet on the street, losing one of her eyes. Meanwhile, Christopher’s most gifted rapper, Price, is on the verge of succumbing to alcoholism.
In a conventional documentary, any of these tangents might be staged as the obstacle that shall be qualifiedly overcome so as to implicitly give predominantly white art-film patrons a misleading sense of optimism and security about the project of equality in the United States. By contrast, Olshefski achieves a revelatory kind of de-emphasis in which each anecdote speaks for itself, cumulatively creating a suggestively multi-stranding emotional tapestry. The Raineys are the kind of family—broke, black, the figurative gas meter always verging on empty—who roll by necessity from one potentially cataclysmic event to another, with a grace and strength that speak of deeply, socially ingrained pragmatism. Olshefski understands that Christine’a and Christopher rarely succumb to their emotions because they don’t have that luxury; even an argument they have late in the film, about P.J.’s blossoming homosexuality, is externalized in a remarkably civil and quiet back and forth that testifies to a life-or-death need to modulate chaos.
Olshefski resists hopeful banality as well as easy nihilism, forging a complex tonality in which these conditions merge with countless other emotional registers—as in anyone’s actual life. In this film, humiliation walks hand-in-hand with transcendence, as a leaky plastic roof leads to a more workable plywood ceiling, or a return home from a hospital operation begets an astonishing and prolonged close-up of P.J.’s alternately opaque and heartbroken visage. Olshefski’s feeling for raw, poetic texture—so vivid as to occasionally attain a magical quality—recalls the films of Charles Burnett, and the extremely rough yet revealing and haunting Sweaty Betty.
Throughout Quest, anecdotes continue to establish a point-and-counterpoint of danger and tranquility. Christopher’s run-in with a police officer is tossed off with terrifying matter-of-factness, captured by Christine’a’s phone as an insurance policy. There’s also a rapturous party scene on the Raineys’ block, in celebration of P.J.’s return home, in which everyone casually outdoes themselves. A splash of orange informs a building with passion. White police officers pose with P.J. (one of them potentially saved her life) and eat with the black residents, scooping mac and cheese and greens onto paper plates. A black man does backflips along the street, while Price raps that “this is what I see in my reflection of the mirror,” before the partygoers assemble for a line dance. These vignettes cohere with ecstatic musicality, revealing a community’s soul. And it can’t not be said: Olshefski is a white man, and the curiosity and compassion that he exhibits in Quest is quietly hopeful. Olshefski looks at the Raineys and sees them.