Jonathan Olshefski's simple and intimate documentary won the hearts of visitors to Sundance earlier in the year, filming the ups and downs of the Rainey family over an eight year period. What started out as a photo essay blossomed into a film that reflects a way life experienced by far too many black working class families in America. Olshefski, a Philadelphia resident, knew of Chris ‘Quest’ Rainey’s home recording studio in North Philly and initially wanted to profile how he balanced his work and creative lives. The more time he spent with the family, the more it spoke of the ongoing racial and class divides that streak across America today.
Olshefski never once imposes himself into the film or onto the Rainey's lives, remaining restrained even through an ordeal that would fully test the family’s resolve. Starting back in 2009, his camera silently observes the tight-knit unit as Obama first comes to office, through to the Trump campaign where the reality TV-star attempts to build bonds with black America through the awkward use of antiquated language. The couple seal a 15-year relationship founded on love, respect and a mutual understanding, heading off to the local registry office to officially mark their union.
Christine'a Rainey, given the nickname 'Ma' because of her tendency to fuss and look after others, works the night shift in a women’s shelter, while Chris rises early to deliver coupons and papers. His studio is renowned in the area for helping upcoming rap artists find a place to vent their rhymes, a non-profit hobby that has become a place of sanctuary for young kids and older heads. Their daughter PJ is a bright young soul who we first see as a twelve-year-old on the cusp of becoming a teenager, while William, Christine’a’s 21-year-old son from a previous relationship, is undergoing cancer treatment and faces up to a daily fight gainst a brain tumour.
A warm affection emanates through Olshefski’s respectful approach and within the first fifteen minutes it’s easy to understand why he is so fond of them. They are a family struggling to get by but it is the positivity with which they live their lives and offer to others that are simple reminders of our own smaller endeavours. This also extends out to the immediate local community, many of whom hold the family in high esteem and are quick to come together in times of need. This is exemplified perfectly when a stray bullet catches the left eye of young PJ, causing her to lose all sight in the eye along with every ounce of her once bubbling confidence.
There is no tawdry manipulation of this or any of the other incidents that Olshefski captures on film, quite simply because there doesn’t need to be. Through the humane portrayal of their everyday lives, the subtleties of individual moments speak, not only, of their family but of a community, city and America as a whole. These are the real people we rarely get to see onscreen, the happiness and tragedies that cinema suggests doesn’t exist at all. They are the authors of their own story here and with a white filmmaker behind the camera, it could not have worked in any other way.
The negative stereotypes that surround black family life are discarded through the acceptance of the Raineys allowing the camera to film their life over so many years. They do not allow their circumstances to affect the bond in their home, even when neighbourhood violence ventures so dangerously near to their little girl. As they step out onto the local streets demonstrating against the gun epidemic that continues to kill innocent people, young and old, a friend powerfully speaks out to the small gathering. “How did Meek Mill and Jay-Z become our leaders? Where are they now? Where are Beyoncé and Rihanna now? Our first role models should be us.” An hour and a half spent with this wonderful family and the residents of North Philadelphia ensure those words remain ringing in your ears.