I’m trying to plant that seed and let it grow.
It’s obvious that Jonathan Olshefski‘s documentary Quest becomes more than his original intent anticipated. This is what happens when you follow your subjects for ten years with infinite possibilities. What begins as a look behind the curtain on a couple (Christopher and Christine’a Rainey) doing everything they can to raise a family and make a difference in their North Philadelphia neighborhood soon cannot help itself from shifting focus onto the circumstances that define their choices. There are families everywhere that sacrifice and struggle to raise kids, make a living, and enjoy life, but they don’t all face the issues for which the Raineys and other impoverished parents like them must contend. Anyone who dismissively says “work hard and reap the rewards” needs to understand it’s never that easy.
Quest provides a bit of that education by showing the initial optimism of black parents living in a community thought by outsiders to be a rough one. We hear them talk about how their book isn’t dictated by that cover. Christine’a works for a shelter housing women and children in need of protection from domestic abuse while Christopher delivers newspapers during the mornings and works in his recording studio at night with Freestyle Fridays providing anyone on the street access to an outlet for their pain and suffering. Here are two compassionate souls responsible for their older children from previous relationships, their young daughter together (P.J. Rainey), and the strangers around them. They’ve embraced these roles and their city with open arms, striving to make North Philadelphia better.
But no one can go ten years without conflict and tragedy. No one can live in any neighborhood whether urban or suburban and not be touched by a life-changing event. Where the difference lies is in the aftermath. The Raineys find themselves confronting topics such as cancer, a stray bullet, and homosexuality on a level wherein just one could risk breaking them let alone all three. The fact they aren’t living in a million dollar waterfront condominium, however, affects their resources and the future that results. Olshefski is given unfettered access to capture the emotional duress, hopelessness, and strength experienced. He shows us the human cost that politicians ignore for statistics. He shows life’s imperfections and the courage to combat them with hope rather than despair.
Credit the Raineys for allowing Olshefski—a white man who grew up in Pittsburgh before moving to Philadelphia for college—to keep coming back despite the growing uncertainty of life and the harrowing moments of potential destruction. They let him capture intimate moments like arguments, childhood rebellion, and real talk wherein the receiver does not want to hear what this person who loves them has to say. There’s authentic evolution on multiple issues from Christopher talking about how people aren’t as tough as they look before a shooting two blocks over has drastic personal consequences to the reality that supplying help to those in need isn’t always enough (see Price, a rapper the Raineys had high hopes for before addiction and tragedy took over). Life is forever fluid.
It only takes half the film to comprehend just how amazing Christopher and Christine’a are. Whether it’s their effective parenting style (very hands on with a loving yet firm grasp on boundaries), their altruistic occupations, or their genial nature to talk to their neighbors and interact as a community despite the long hours and multiple hats worn, we see them as role models we should aspire to become. None of that matters when fate intervenes, though, just like wealth doesn’t make you charitable or kind. No matter how deserving the Raineys are to receive everything they could hope for, elements outside of their control prevent it. They are still stopped by the police for no reason, victims of gun violence, and saddled with impossible choices to merely survive.
But this also makes their story so profoundly important. They remain steadfast and encouraged despite those moments that could force them from the place they’ve called home their entire lives. Just because the culprits of that shooting haven’t been identified doesn’t mean the Raineys should shut down their music studio for fear of potentially letting them in some Friday night. They’re inspiring in this way because they realize the difference between caution and paranoia. They understand that letting them in may save someone’s life. Letting someone on the brink of violence transform their anger into words rather than bullets isn’t to be taken lightly. No one should condemn a city for its few bad apples when there are those who selflessly prove how much good also resides within.
Olshefski recognizes this and crafts his 100-minute distillation of a decade to those moments that portray it. He witnessed the perseverance and fight first-hand and ensured we as viewers could too. Did he therefore edit out tougher times and missteps? Absolutely. But the simple fact that Christopher and Christine’a are still standing at the end with smiles on their faces proves none of what we don’t see is pertinent. None of the noise that exists in moments without defining who they are before or after them matters to anyone but outsiders with an agenda. To strip the preconceptions away and simply watch as a family prevails against the stacked deck their own country sustains to keep them down is to see an honest slice of America. Humanity resonates.