The Lives of Black Americans, Depicted Via a Single Alabama Dry Cleaners

Kevin Jerome Everson

There’s a lovely scene in Kevin Jerome Everson’s documentary Quality Control in which a seamstress chats with customers and co-workers, threads her sewing machine with balletic dexterity and charms the viewer with her Southern accent and down-home manner. It’s one of the film’s few nods toward convention; dialogue, rhythm and force of personality jell into a familiar cinematic hook, into immediate accessibility.

That’s not to say that Quality, shot in black-and-white, isn’t hugely satisfying in its own right. A meditative look at a work shift for a small-town Alabama dry cleaners whose employees are largely African-American, the film is filled with long takes of unnamed workers performing repetitive tasks — ironing, sorting clothes, working the steam press — in long stretches of silence or near silence. The grinding noise of machines is often the only sound on the audio track. (Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” is submerged beneath workplace noise early in the film.) The sum effect is a hypnotic, often poetic look at race and class in a blue-collar Southern workspace.

Everson has forged a celebrated career (70 short films and six features) as a genre hybridist, working across and then melding elements of experimental fiction and nonfiction filmmaking. His work is not only in conversation with UCLA’s iconic L.A. Rebellion film movement of the ’70s (including such heavyweights as Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima and Jamaa Fanaka, among others), but also with fellow modern experimental filmmakers like Cauleen Smith, and indie directors Barry Jenkins, Dee Rees, Tina Mabry, Ava Duvernay and Tanya Hamilton. Linking all their work is the seriousness with which they take black life, as they turn a spotlight on aspects of the black experience and imagination that can’t be easily packaged for passive consumption.

In Quality, as in much of his work, Everson’s concern here is the nature of work itself, particularly the unglamorous sort. Without pedantry or grandstanding, he locates the grace within the grind.


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