“The Public” is about an act of civil disobedience.
In the middle of a brutally cold spell in Cincinnati, the city runs out of shelter space and a group of regular library patrons, who are homeless, refuse to leave when the building closes. One of the librarians, with the fable-like surname of Goodson (Emilio Estevez) decides to make a stand on the side of the homeless men. A police detective (Alec Baldwin), the media and the library director (Jeffery Wright) all get involved in a sit-in. There is a love interest for Stuart Goodson, who is played by Taylor Schilling of “Orange is the New Black.” So, there are some very good actors in the film, which is a definite plus.
You might be interested in seeing this movie for the same reasons I was: It combines themes of homelessness and activism with the role the public library plays in the community and its relationship with local government. Anyone who loves libraries would also love this movie. And since the recent Seattle Library levy passed by an overwhelming 73 percent, it’s apparent there is a lot of love for libraries in this city. By the way, part of the money from this levy will erase library fines for overdue materials, a custom that heavily penalizes the poor.
As a librarian in a public library, I, like many of my co-workers, was eager to see this film. But it took a long time to get here. Estevez started this movie 12 years ago. In the interim, he made the film “The Way,” about the Camino de Santiago in Spain, then started a wine business. But was “The Public” worth the wait? According to its reception, no. It played in few theaters to small audiences and its ratings were not outstanding. But it has a lot going for it.
“The Public” shows the link between the public library, homelessness and mental illness. Public libraries have become de facto homeless shelters, which makes librarians de facto social workers. Estevez makes that point in the film, and he deserves commendations for exposing this important social issue.
But should Estevez’s character, Stuart Goodson, really have had to have experienced homelessness himself? That did not seem relevant or necessary. He was sympathetic because he is a human being, in part because he knows individual homeless people are indeed people. “The Public” shows the “outcasts, the misfits, the marginalized, the poor,” said Estevez on Peter Travers’ show “Popcorn.” According to the interview, Estevez said he wants people to feel empowered by the film. He said he no longer makes movies for “the studio,” and that he makes films about our shared humanity and about hope.
It’s a powerful message: The current marginalization and criminalization of the poor is not OK. And you — as the “public” in the public library — count.
Though the film exposes important social issues, I was left with a few questions. For instance, why were all the people who refused to leave the library at closing all men? Watching this movie, you might think very few homeless people are women. In fact, according to a recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA)the homeless population is approximately 51 percent single men, 24 percent single women and another 23 percent families — often single mothers with small children.
Why was the detective’s son involved in the sit-in? I am guessing the director thought it would express the truth that anyone can be homeless or have a family member become homeless.
I liked the portrayal of libraries and library staff; but as a librarian, I had questions. There is a majority of female administration in libraries, 65 percent according to American Library Association statistics, but that wasn’t reflected in this movie. The sparse roles for women in the film included an employee under Goodson, Myra (Jena Malone) — it was unclear if she was a librarian or a paraprofessional — and Goodson’s love-interest neighbor Angela, (Schilling). Estevez says he wants people watching this movie to see themselves in the movie, but that was difficult for me as a woman with an almost entirely male cast. If his intentions were true, one might think Estevez might take a look at employment statistics and make a film that allows viewers to see themselves in the cast.
Not many people saw this movie in the theater but the film has a long list of reservations at the Seattle Public Library and King County Library System. So there’s substantial interest. It is also now available at Redbox.
Even with its minor faults, it’s a movie worth seeing. Emilio Estevez definitely has a message; he said he wants it to be subtle. He used the analogy of a kale salad, as something good for you that you should eat. But this film is not a kale salad; instead, it’s gluten-free cheesecake.
Carla McLean works for the King County Library System, Kent Library.
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