Family, race, class and the triumph of the human spirit examined in ‘QUEST,’ airing June 18 on POV

Jonathan Olshefski’s documentary paints an intimate portrait of a black family in North Philadelphia.

Photo: Colleen Stepanian/Courtesy of PBS
Photo: Colleen Stepanian/Courtesy of PBS

For his debut documentary, QUEST, director Jonathan Olshefski spent nearly a decade chronicling the daily triumphs and tragedies of the Raineys, a working-class African-American family in North Philadelphia. The father, Christopher “Quest” Rainey, is a local music producer and promoter who hosts a popular freestyle session for aspiring rappers in his home basement studio; the mother, Christine’a “Ma Quest” Rainey, works night shifts at a homeless shelter; and their spirited adolescent daughter, Patricia “PJ” Rainey, is a daddy’s girl who loves to play basketball.

QUEST, directed by Olshefski and produced by Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, features original music by Christopher “Quest” Rainey. QUEST has its national broadcast and streaming debut on the PBS documentary series POV and on Monday, June 18, 2018, at 10 PM (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series now in its 31st season.

The vérité film opens with a shot inside the family’s modest North Philadelphia row home. It’s Election Day 2008, and while frying bacon for breakfast Christine’a is recalling that someone in the neighbourhood yelled out, “Vote for McCain!”

“You know he didn’t say that around the polls,” she observes. Later, Christopher returns from the polls and has exciting news to report: “There was a line for the first time in umpteen years down here.”

“The number one goal of this film was to gather material that would allow the viewer to connect to the Rainey family. The number two goal was to tell the story artfully and capture images that would convey the beauty of the family and the neighbourhood,” Olshefski told Filmmaker Magazine.

“I spent a lot of time over the years just hanging out, watching movies, playing cards. The result of this long-term commitment was that I was able to fade into the background and record natural scenes where the camera was not intrusive.”

The award-winning independent film offers an intimate portrait of a black American family. Both Christopher and Christine’a have children from previous relationships, and we witness the committed couple making their union official with a simple church ceremony. As Christine’a braids Christopher’s hair, he muses about their relationship, saying, “In our minds, we were already married, you know. Just being together throughout the years and knowing that we both wanted the same things in life.”

Another tender scene shows Christopher taking PJ to school on a tandem bike. “I’ll be here when you get out,” he says as drops her off.

For producer Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, these moments speak to the importance of disrupting prevailing narratives. In an interview, she told Vogue, “I’ve often felt frustrated about the way in which stories about black people and black life are told, that they feel reductive and perpetuate a lot of negative stereotypes about who we are… I wanted to tell a story about a black family with more nuance, that did not define people strictly by their circumstances but amplified their humanity and complexity. Their thoughtfulness, humour, intellect, love, as well as their contradictions and challenges… It means a lot to see our own stories being told, in a way that we recognize ourselves in them. There’s power in that. There’s power in representation.”

The viewer also witnesses tough moments, such as when Christine’a comforts her older son, William, after he is diagnosed with brain cancer at the same time he is expecting his first child.

And because their neighbourhood is riddled with violence, young PJ has a 6 p.m. curfew. “A lot of people say their neighbourhoods are tough, but North Philly is definitely a tough neighbourhood. PJ, you know, has a curfew. She has to be in at a reasonable time—she’s rebellious about it but doesn’t disobey me,” Christopher says.

Christopher’s care and attention make an ensuing accident all the more tragic. In heart-stopping scenes, the Raineys reveal what it’s like to experience terrible luck and face it with courage and resolve.

“Scene after scene, we see the Raineys show generosity to all those around them. They face obstacles together with unmatched grace, poise and love,” said Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary. “QUEST is the portrait of a family immensely invested in their community. It follows them as they face odds that are unimaginable for some, and all too familiar for others. QUEST is not only a resonant story to follow Father’s Day, but also a perfect season opener, highlighting as it does the creative and daring among us.”

Written by Manny King John

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