After a few brief introductory images, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Quality Control settles on a shot soaking in a small area of the factory-like dry cleaner’s facility in Pritchard, Alabama that the film takes as its subject. As the minutes tick by the shot continues to hold. A worker bustles in and out of frame. The shot is wide, the worker often obscured by the clothes and machinery in front of him, or off somewhere to the right, outside of our gaze. Time and again the worker appears, the shot observing his movements unflinchingly. The noisy clamour of machinery and background chatter rings on the soundtrack. The black and white image rolls on. Tedium begins to set in. Interest in the Sisyphean task begins to wane. But as the scene continues, something happens. Not on screen – if it’s action you want, you won’t find it here – but inside. Tedium gives way. Contemplation arises. For the worker, this monotonous repetition is his life.
There’s no doubt that Quality Control is a film you have to settle into. Its long, static takes punctuated by silent, handheld bursts create a powerful but challenging rhythm which asks the viewer to work as hard as its subjects. The film’s aesthetic minimalism continues to skirt around tedium throughout, but it also offers viewers plenty of space in which to reflect on the daily lives of the working-class African-Americans that populate the dry cleaners. However, the film’s observational stance, its preference for wide shots over close ups, and its near total-lack of contextualising interviews keep the focus on the work, as opposed to the workers. Indeed, the facility’s machinery plays just as prominent a role in the film as the people who use it, and their mechanical, repetitious movements could be said to strip them of their individuality. The one exception to this is a sequence in which a seamstress talks to customers over the counter – but even here the focus remains on work: while occasionally personal details arise in the conversation, they hardly amount to any great insight into character psychology. Although resulting in something of a barrier to viewer engagement, this lack of personalisation also generalises the workers’ situation, universalising the story and raising wider questions as to the situation of the working classes worldwide, while also rendering the film with a timeless feel.
The film’s one piece of contextualising commentary (if you can call it that) comes at the very end, when a brief sound bite from an interview with one of the workers is heard in voice-over. Although it does succeed in giving some context and explanation to the film’s title, it also feels somewhat unnecessary and out-of-place in a film which is otherwise so consistently pitched. The consistency of this pitching, meanwhile, adds to the hard work involved in the viewing experience meaning that the film as a whole never quite satisfies: despite raising a number of interesting questions, it doesn’t really offer enough back to the viewer in return for their engagement. However, as a quiet meditation on working-class African-American life, Quality Control remains a very effective and somewhat spell-binding piece of filmmaking.