In the late afternoon of April 14, 2019, I went to the Charles Theatre in downtown Baltimore after going to a retirement party for an old friend and saw The Public, an independent film written and directed by Emilio Estevez, son of Martin Sheen and brother of Charlie Sheen. I came in very skeptical, as I had heard murmurs on Twitter from fellow librarians that the film was overly-hyped and not as good as reviews made it out to be, perhaps in line with those who said the film could have benefited from refinement. The same was reflected in Anthony Lane’s mixed review of the film in The New Yorker, saying he cannot fault the film’s motives because “library services in the United States are under strain and threat, and homelessness is a scar upon the body politic,” but further says that “collectors of awkward white-savior scenes can add this one [film] to their stash.” I later learned that Estevez argued that his film would “remind people just how vital and important libraries are,” inspired by an article in LA Times by a retired librarian of Salt Lake City, Chip Ward, in 2007, arguing, as Estevez described it, that “libraries have become de facto homeless shelters and how librarians have become de facto social workers and first responders.” That article by Chip Ward, lead Estevez to dig into the library world and think of a possible story. In his view, he hopes the movie shows that libraries are not antiquated institutions, with librarians as “the first Google,” highlighting forgotten people in society (the homeless) and how far they will go to “demand human dignity.” With this, I’m not surprised to learn that libraries in Charleston and elsewhere, held showings of the film.
After watching the full movie, I was surprised what an effective drama it was, and perhaps one of the best portrayals of public libraries (and libraries) in general on the silver screen in years. Perhaps this is no surprise because this film has a “knockout cast of Hollywood talent.” The plot of this film, set in Cincinnati, is simple. There are frigid temperatures every night and homeless patrons go into the main branch of the Cincinnati Public Library in order to use its services and stay warm. Estevez plays a librarian, as does Jena Malone, while Jacob Vargas plays the library’s head of security, and Alec Baldwin plays an ineffective crisis negotiator. Christian Slater plays a local district attorney, Taylor Schilling plays a manager of the apartment where Estevez’s character lives, Jeffrey Wright plays the head librarian, Richard T. Jones plays the chief of police, and Gabrielle Union plays a local reporter. Among the homeless patrons, there are actors Michael K. Williams, Bryant Bentley, Ki Hong Lee, and Michael Douglas Hall most prominently. While this panoply of character leads to a few side-stories, they soon merge into one single plotline near the film’s beginning. It is then that the conflict that will last the rest of the film begins with male homeless patrons (some with mental illnesses) making their move: they engage in a sit-in and occupy the third floor of the library as an emergency homeless shelter, with Estevez and Malone barricaded inside with them.
Throughout the course of the film, the importance of the library is made clear to the audience. The “heroes” like Jeffrey Wright’s character, defend the importance of the library against the “villains,” like those characters portrayed by Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater, giving speeches to that effect, literally. At the same time, Gabrielle Union plays a reporter who likes to whoop up stories for her own benefit, having a selfish agenda just like Slater (who is running for mayor), Slater’s opponent (a preacher), and Baldwin (who is looking for his son). So, the media is not displayed as a bastion of democracy. Instead, the public library, which is effectively a character of its own, takes on that role, showing its continued importance.
The film, which took 12 years to get funding together for it, also does a good job dispelling common misconceptions and stereotypes about librarians. Many Hollywood films have perpetrated the latter, including the small-town librarian with spring fever in Forbidden (1932) or the spinster librarian in the alternative reality, where George Bailey doesn’t exist, in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) to give two examples I can think of off the top of my head. For example, when Taylor Schilling talks to Estevez, she says that librarians must have a lot of time to read books (you don’t) and that librarians do “weird things,” which Estevez shrugs off. Schilling even hilariously declares that no one goes to public libraries anymore, which Estevez easily counters, debunking a common myth about libraries. For his character, he notes that his addiction was ended when he began reading books and explains the importance of being a librarian, while he is shown as a repairer of books which were defaced by bigoted individuals.
In a large part, this movie treats librarians as people who are helping those in their communities, which is clearly one of the most accurate representations to date. Librarians are clearly the “heroes” of this film and that is positive, which other films do not portray, with the focus on a male librarian rather than a female librarian as common on the silver screen. The only partial equivalent is Eric Bana who plays a Chicago reference librarian in The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), but eventually abandons his job for love with an artist, played by Rachel McAdams.
Even so, this film has its shortcomings. Apart from the fact that the movie was not “entirely accurate” in how homelessness was portrayed as one homeless advocate in the Cincinnati area argued, in part because institutions in the area strive to have beds open for the homeless and because more of the homeless population is female than those portrayed in the film (mostly male). While you could say there are some “white savior” elements in the film, as Lane said in his New Yorker article, which I noted at the beginning of this review, more than that, this film plays into classic Hollywood archetypes: good vs. evil or heroes vs. villains, and a love story (between Estevez and Schilling), the latter which seems unnecessary to the plotline. Also, I think it is a bit unfortunate that the media is portrayed so negatively in this film, but perhaps that was supposed to represent “fake news” and changing media perceptions since November 2016. Furthermore, while I think that the case of a patron suing the library and the City of Cincinnati for ejection from the library itself has some validity, this seemed a bit overstated. Even so, there is clearly a debate in the library (and allied) community and scholarship about library rules (like the one involving body odor) to the homeless, since some are applied only to the homeless and not evenly to other patrons. Slater’s character even brings this up to Estevez in a meeting about the lawsuit (which is later settled) where he is effectively asked to resign.
In the end, despite its problems, ‘The Public’ is a compelling drama I recommend, which should be watched by librarians or library-lovers, in order to continue the discussion, not only on homelessness and mental illness but on the importance of libraries themselves.
© 2020 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.
NOTE: This was originally posted on my History Hermann blog and reposted here. Enjoy! I wrote this back in April 2019 for Book Riot but since they never sent me anything back, when I published this, I thought I might post this here. I know some have been critical of how the librarians were all white and racial (and gender) dynamics in the film, but I didn’t find any reviews, at the time, that talked about that, and newer ones that talk about his focus on libraries as a central part of the film, say the film has a “subpar screenplay,” is “self-righteous,” or is “sincere” with a “political heart.” Comments are welcome, as always!