‘Quest’ a worthy eight-year project of one African American family in Philly

In 2008, Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president gave hope to the residents of a tough, mostly African American neighborhood in north Philadelphia. In 2016, Donald Trump called such neighborhoods “war zones,” told African Americans he would fix them, and famously asked them, “What do you have to lose?”

As you might imagine, quite a lot.

With the backdrop of American politics at a far remove but ever present, Jonathan Olshefski’s “Quest,” a moving, quite amazing documentary filmed over the eight-year period between the two historic presidential elections, explains just how much the Raineys, a hard-working family in North Philadelphia, have to lose.

It opens exclusively at the Roxie on Friday, Jan. 5.

Christopher Rainey has many jobs, from delivering newspapers in the pre-dawn hours to music producer, his calling. A former addict, he has been with Christine’a for more than a decade, and at the outset of the film, they finally marry. They have children from other relationships, but only one together, daughter P.J., who is about 10 when the movie begins.

When producing his music and co-hosting a radio show, Christopher goes by Quest, and he is the father figure for any and all aspiring rappers and hip-hop artists. It’s not a moneymaking enterprise, but more of a community program, providing an artistic outlet and a safe space from the streets. Christine’a, who bears the scars from severe burns suffered in a fire during her youth, is known as Ma Quest.

As the years unfold, Christine’a’s son William battles brain cancer, and P.J. loses an eye after she is hit by a stray bullet. Financial challenges are ever-present. Yet “Quest” has a spirit of peaceful resilience, and the result is a beautiful, quietly observant film of family love and strength.

Although Olshefski pointedly set his film between the presidential elections of 2008 and 2016, politics is rarely mentioned. We don’t know, for example, how the Raineys are able to afford the health care for William and P.J. for medical conditions that occurred before Obamacare. They have jobs, and the word “welfare” is never mentioned.

In this sense, “Quest” advances no political agenda at all. Not even when Christopher is pulled over by the police and relentlessly questioned because he fits the description of a criminal at large (Christine’a films the encounter on her cell phone). The words “Black Lives Matter” are not mentioned, and gun control is never mentioned.

It’s as if Olshefski felt that such political ax-grinding would distract from the quiet heroism of the Raineys. The consequences of various laws and policies are not discussed, but felt at street level.

In 1973, PBS aired “An American Family,” a warts-and-all portrait of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, which became a national sensation and is now considered the first reality TV series. “Quest” could very easily have been titled “An American Family” as well.

Like the Louds, the Raineys are people you would want as neighbors. And guess what? They are.

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ajohnson@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen

Quest

WILD APPLAUSEDocumentary. Directed by Jonathan Olshefski. (Not rated. 104 minutes.)

Notable TV moments in the year of Trump

I knew it would be bad, but it’s worse than I thought. U.S. President Donald Trump and his gang of thieves are real-life versions of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, sitting in their underground lair, rubbing their hands together as they cackle, “Let’s kill elephants!” and “Let’s make the lowest-income people pay for tax breaks for the highest!”

Television in 2017 is arguably the best it’s ever been, but the things I watched that affected me the most all seemed to relate, one way or another, to what was happening in the White House and how that impacted North America’s psyche.

Trump Himself: There were a couple of funny moments. Melania slapping Donald’s hand away. The Mooch. Angela Merkel shrugging after the handshake that wasn’t. Anthony Atamanuik’s eerily accurate impression on The President Show, which captures that unfillable maw of need at Trump’s core. Trump slurring “God blesh the Uni-ed Shash,” because he was too vain to take a sip of water. There was even one heartwarming moment: the December night that Alabama did not vote for alleged pedophile Roy Moore for U.S. Senate. But as the year wore on, I felt like my soul was being dragged over broken glass and I lost my sense of humour. There were so many low points, but the lowest had to be Trump’s post-Charlottesville Nazi march news conference. “On many sides” is a phrase that will live in infamy.

Jimmy Kimmel is keeping the pressure on U.S. politicians, appearing on his late-night show with son Billy in his arms, writes Johanna Schneller.
Jimmy Kimmel is keeping the pressure on U.S. politicians, appearing on his late-night show with son Billy in his arms, writes Johanna Schneller.  (Randy Holmes/ABC)  

Late Night Comedians: By doing astute takedowns of Trump, Stephen Colbert surged ahead, as did Seth Meyers. Trevor Noah found his voice. Samantha Bee stepped fully into her role as avenger of female anger. But the most interesting change, for me, was the politicization of Jimmy Kimmel, as he cited his infant son Billy’s heart problems as a plea to keep the Affordable Care Act. He’s staying woke and keeping the pressure on: earlier this month, he appeared with Billy in his arms, to continue agitating for health care. “Daddy cries on TV, Billy doesn’t”: a gem.

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Frankie Shaw in SMILF, one of the series in which women rules on television, writes Johanna Schneller.
Frankie Shaw in SMILF, one of the series in which women rules on television, writes Johanna Schneller.  (Claire Folger/SHOWTIME)  

Women Rule. Beginning with the Women’s March on Washington — that shining sea of pussy hats! — television was dominated by women this year, from Big Little Lies at the beginning through SMILF at the end. So many of the brightest series dealt with sexism and/or sexual abuse: One Mississippi, I Love Dick, Feud: Bette and Joan, Top of the Lake: China Girl, Transparent. Girls went out strong, with Lena Dunham writing the single best TV episode of the year, as Hannah confronts a revered writer (played by Matthew Rhys) who may or may not be a harasser. Meryl Streep made a speech for the ages at the Golden Globes and even former Fox Barbie Megyn Kelly got politicized (and jumped networks).

Women Rule, Canadian Division. Two words: Margaret Atwood. The limited series Alias Grace showed us what things were like for women in Canada’s early years, while The Handmaid’s Tale showed us what they (all too easily) could become. We also got a reimagined, kick-ass Anne (With an E in the U.S.) and Mary Kills People killed south of the border, too.

Bye, Fellas. Whether or not you agree that anger against Trump’s election was the catalyst, the #MeToo campaign and the brave women who came forward to speak of their alleged abuse and assault changed the face of television. Gone: comedian Louis C.K.; House of Cards star Kevin Spacey; morning host Matt Lauer; PBS staple Charlie Rose; SNL-star-turned U.S. senator Al Franken; The Chew chef Mario Batali; and likely more to come.

Rita Moreno stars in the Netflix update of One Day at a Time, which got the freshest update of the various TV remakes and revivals, writes Johanna Schneller.
Rita Moreno stars in the Netflix update of One Day at a Time, which got the freshest update of the various TV remakes and revivals, writes Johanna Schneller.  (Michael Yarish/NETFLIX)  

Comfort Food. Viewers needed refuge from their collective anxiety, too. Perhaps that’s why so many remakes and series revivals floated up. Will & Grace, Dynasty and One Day at a Time broke out of their time capsules. The latter got the freshest update, by centring on a Hispanic family, while the former felt like time hadn’t moved at all. Young Sheldon gave a prequel fix to fans jonesing for more Big Bang Theory and, after a six-year hiatus, Larry David reanimated his unrepentant reprobate routine, Curb Your Enthusiasm. David’s old pal Jerry Seinfeld also popped up again, in the rewarmed Netflix special Jerry Before Seinfeld. If all that wasn’t comforting enough, viewers gorged on U.S. and Canadian versions of The Great British Baking Show — until one of the U.S. hosts, Johnny Iuzzini, was booted off amid allegations of sexual misconduct. Sigh.

Justin Theroux in The Leftovers, whose three seasons were the most audaciously imagined, brilliantly written and beautifully acted work Johanna Schneller has ever seen.
Justin Theroux in The Leftovers, whose three seasons were the most audaciously imagined, brilliantly written and beautifully acted work Johanna Schneller has ever seen.  (Ben King/HBO)  

The Leftovers. Rest in peace, my favourite show of 2017. And 2016. And 2015. You never got any love from the Emmys, maybe because you were just too melancholy, too challenging, too tough to watch, even for our tortured cultural moment. But for me, your three seasons were the most audaciously imagined, brilliantly written and beautifully acted work I’ve seen. You addressed the biggest questions through small character moments. You were strange and sad and soaring. I’ll miss you like a person.

Writer/star Issa Rae doubled down on Insecure this year, calling Season 2 "very, very Black," writes Johanna Schneller.
Writer/star Issa Rae doubled down on Insecure this year, calling Season 2 “very, very Black,” writes Johanna Schneller.  (Anne Marie Fox/HBO)  

Black Voices. Dear White People, She’s Gotta Have It, Insecure and The Chi added long-overdue perspectives from writers, directors and actors of colour. Writer/star Issa Rae, especially, doubled down on Insecure this year, calling Season 2 “very, very Black.” The name stars of HBO’s The Deuce may have been Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco, but the marginalization of Black men and the commodification of Black women’s bodies were the most interesting storylines. Rachel Lindsay was the first African-American Bachelorette and brought conversations about the realities of race onto the ski slopes and hearths of that pseudoreality series. Don Lemon became a CNN star last February, when he ended his show early to cut off a right-wing guest; his unabashedly partisan cred now rivals Anderson Cooper’s. Robyn Roberts heaped scorn on Trump apologist Omarosa with one “Bye Felicia.” Black players took over the National Football League by taking a knee during the U.S. national anthem, to protest systemic racism. Five documentaries — including John Singleton’s L.A. Burning and PBS’s L.A. 92 — were made about the 25th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots, which were sparked by the acquittals of the cops who beat Rodney King. And the video that Diamond Reynolds took after police shot her boyfriend Philando Castile was the most important five minutes of the year.

Incendiary television, for sure. But I’d trade it for saner times.

Johanna Schneller is a media connoisseur who zeroes in on pop-culture moments. She usually appears Tuesday and Thursday.

(BPRW) Happy Kwanzaa

Pambazuka nini leo?
(Meaning “what brightens your day?” in Swahili)
(Black PR Wire) Kwanzaa paves the way for a brighter future! It’s up to all of us to do our part to brighten the way for black organizations to grow and thrive!
So, as w

Asheville’s nonwhite literary scene, past and present, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at a history of discrimination and policies, such as urban renewal, that marginalized the voices of nonwhite writers in Asheville and throughout Appalachia. Educational institutions — or lack thereof — impacted that suppression of diverse literature, including the Asheville area’s lack of a historically black college or university. And, while efforts are now being made to address diversity in education, there are still shortfalls.

Asheville High School was integrated in 1969 — nearly 50 years ago — but local author, poet and playwright Monica McDaniel says she only remembers having four black teachers when she was a student, and her teenage daughter has only had one.

At the same time, local author Meta Commerse, who recently published The Mending Time, taught for four years at an area community college but found the experience to be difficult. “I was the only woman of color,” she remembers. “It was very isolating, very challenging.”

She continues, “I had some great times overall with my students, but I definitely had, most of the time in my classes, students who pushed back. I taught true history … and they weren’t used to that.”

Lesson plans

TO TELL THE TRUTH: Author and Story Medicine program director Meta Commerse was hired for a time, by a well-intentioned department head, to teach “in an indigenous voice,” at a local college. “I don’t think either of us realized what the cost of that would be,” she says. Photo courtesy of Commerse