During the entire Obama presidency, director Jonathan Oshlefski documented an African American family in their North Philadelphia neighborhood. At the start, the Raineys are struggling somewhat, though managing fine. Chris, who goes by Quest in his musical circle, holds freestyle rap sessions with members from the community in a music studio owned by him and his wife, Christine’a. Sometime near the beginning, Chris and Christine’a hold an official marriage ceremony. Shortly after, Chris is walking their daughter, P.J., to school, asking whether or not she would vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. She answers Obama, citing Mitt Romney’s inability to express his plan of action. Much later, Chris and Christine’a watch Donald Trump on TV delivering campaign promises. Trump declares that the way black people are living is disastrous. “You have no idea how we live,” says Christine’a. We know this just as well, as rather than focusing on how national politics influences the Raineys lives, Quest displays the many ways in which they do not. Both Obama and Trump have choice words about these communities, but neither can give a full picture. Quest fills in the blanks. Who are they talking about, exactly, when they refer to black communities?
Quest employs a time-focused narrative which progresses chronologically, but it embodies the elliptical, rambling style of an early Maysles Brothers’ film. While visual cues inject the presence of shifting political messages, instilling the subjects with a newfound sense of optimism at the start and a sense of dread towards the end, the focus often narrows on routine. Christine’a struggles with the stress of work. Chris keeps active in the community. P.J. navigates the choppy terrain of adolescence. Occasionally, big events occur outside of election cycles. The neighborhood engages in protests to end street violence. Tragically, P.J. barely escapes death but is partially blinded by a random shooting. In a brief scene, we see officers frisking Chris, when members of the department had earlier been taking pictures with the family at a block party meant to celebrate P.J.’s recovery. Regardless of what current upheaval is occurring, the Raineys and their neighbors live day to day in more or less the same way they always have, sometimes encountering progress, and other times indignity.
The eight year time period of Obama’s terms in office acts as more of a timekeeper than a backdrop. Considering the presiding events in the film, it doesn’t seem especially relevant. There aren’t any particular policies or changes of the Obama era that show a presence. But if we consider these governmental changes as recurring prefaces, we are reminded of the film’s purpose. By containing segments within the eventful election cycles, Quest transcends the frequently done fly-on-the-wall look into an American family, and rather illustrates the lives which Trump erroneously refers to and insults, and which president Obama tried to shine a light on. Additionally, by including the setting, both in terms of time period and location, in the film’s scope, Oshlefski is able to portray an entire community and its struggles with the intimacy of a family portrait. | Nic Champion