LJ Reviews The Public

Emilio Estevez’s new film The Public, which puts the challenges and ideals of a large urban public library in the spotlight, held its premiere April 1 at the New York Public Library. Fans from both the film and library worlds packed the Celeste Bartos Forum, where NYPL president and CEO Anthony Marx introduced Estevez and members of The Public ’s cast, many of whom had a shout-out or two for libraries.

cast members of The Public onstage
(Left to Right) Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Michael K. Williams, Jacob Vargas, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Spencer Garrett
Photo by Kristina Bumphry/StarPix

 

Emilio Estevez’s new film The Public, which puts the challenges and ideals of a large urban public library in the spotlight, held its premiere April 1 at the New York Public Library. Fans from both the film and library worlds packed the Celeste Bartos Forum, where NYPL president and CEO Anthony Marx introduced Estevez and members of The Public ’s cast, many of whom had a shout-out or two for libraries. (Estevez offered his own point of view to LJ in January.)

The Public , set in Cincinnati and shot at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, follows the events of one bitterly cold night for librarian Stuart Goodson (Estevez) and a group of patrons experiencing homelessness. The shelters are full, and the men refuse to leave at closing time; their act of civil disobedience escalates as a crisis negotiator (Alec Baldwin), a district attorney (Christian Slater), the chief of police (Richard T. Jones), and the library director (Jeffrey Wright) are called in and a ratings-chasing news crew amps up the conflict on the air.

Estevez engaged with his library audience actively during the last few years of the film’s production. Its reception, at screenings held at American Library Association conferences and libraries across the country, has been largely positive, thanks to his obvious affection for libraries and the fact that he did his research. The thoroughly entertaining—and often very funny—drama is bracketed with some wonderful, celebratory scenes of library life.

The movie understands the dilemma of how big urban public libraries must balance the needs of patrons across a wide spectrum of socioeconomic levels, and deftly pulls apart common misconceptions of librarianship. Goodson’s rapport with his regulars, and their sense of camaraderie and humor with one another, rang true. And it was easy to sympathize with the library director and his need to balance the city’s realpolitik with broader library values. Estevez has worked hard to avoid clichés, and he clearly cares about his characters.

However, The Public glosses over a few notable inequities. While the film featured black people in nominal positions of power—the library director, the police chief, a mayoral candidate, and the leader of the homeless group occupying the library (Michael Kenneth Williams)—it ultimately set up the main protagonists as a three-way triangle of white men: Estevez; Slater, who makes a convincing law and order hardliner; and Baldwin as the negotiator whose personal arc hinges on a son caught up in the opioid epidemic. It presents as a white savior narrative, albeit a reluctant one.

In addition, the film is heavily male, which doesn’t reflect the realities of the world it is set in—not only is librarianship an overwhelmingly female profession, but homelessness is virtually evenly split: 24 percent of people experiencing homelessness are single women and 23 percent are families, the majority single mothers and their children. The film’s homeless characters are all men. And while there’s a plot twist enabled by this, no in-character reason is given. Throwing in a line about the shelters prioritizing families and thus leaving the male characters out in the cold, or that leader of the homeless men only marshalled his own friends, could have helped. The patrons experiencing homelessness, while written and acted with great compassion, are still a motion picture–sanitized cohort. And although some smoothing of the rougher edges was no doubt necessary to keep the film salable, the trope of mental illness as a personality quirk is all too present.

Of the film’s three female roles, one is a love interest, one a librarian who is first called out for her progressive values and then can’t walk the talk, and one is a shallow reporter who cares more about ratings than the truth. None undergoes any kind of transformation over the course of the film, although the librarian character does find a way to put her ideals into action; unfortunately it mainly involves moving bags of donated clothing. This is not great representation, and may not even technically pass the Bechdel test.

The main character’s comeback from having lived on the streets himself is a good twist, providing a level of depth and context for Estevez’s protagonist. But it’s a missed opportunity when the library director character’s explanation stops at “the library gave him a second chance,” rather than noting that his ability to help and relate to homeless patrons is actually a great job qualification. Looking at what Denver Public Library is doing with hiring peer navigators who have lived experience, a degreed librarian who has it too is a rare and valuable gift, not a magnanimous allowance.

And while it’s always good to see a nod to a genuine literary inner life on screen, it was frustrating to see the main character use his live, on-air advocacy opportunity to quote John Steinbeck, rather than making a clear and comprehensible case for the people he is backing. Books are obviously a touchstone and a lifeline for Goodson, and he’s a realistically awkward public speaker, but the moment came off as contrived.

Overall, The Public is likely to be good for libraries, for increased empathy toward people experiencing homelessness, and for questioning the adequacy of civic infrastructure. At the same time, it’s not a take-your-medicine docudrama; the movie is solidly entertaining, and often touching. While it may not be the edgy film that some hoped for, Estevez may well have played his hand well enough that The Public will find its way into the mainstream and increase a wider audience’s awareness of what libraries do and are capable of in service to their public.

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Kathy Dempsey

I agree that there could've been more women in the film, especially in library roles. However, Estevez did explain the lack of homeless women in his first ALA screening in June 2018. It relates to a major scene near the end of the movie, which I won't spoil here. But those who have seen the film can imagine how difficult that scene (and the ending) would've been to handle had there been women present. Also, the "shallow reporter" does seem to come to an "ah-ha" moment, though I'd have liked to see that play out further. This article also laments some things that could've been explained better. To that point, Estevez has said numerous times that he had to cut his original 155-pg script down to 117. So he may have originally offered more explanation that just didn't make the cut. I'm not saying this film is perfect; just saying there are some plausible explanations for some of the shortcomings you point out. Still, The Public is fantastic, and I'm grateful it's been picked up. Let's leverage it to help build understanding of, and support for, our public libraries! (I offered some ideas for that near the end of my own review, here: http://www.infotoday.com/mls/sep18/Dempsey--Movie-Review-the-public.shtml )

Posted : May 01, 2019 02:43


Luciane Aspon

“...three way triangle of white men...” Doesn’t Estevez identify as Latino?

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 05:07

Laurel Hall

His father, Martin Sheen, is of white Spanish heritage, not Latino.

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 05:07

R Knaur

According to this interview, he identifies with his roots, but admits his heritage is mostly white -- Martin Sheen is 1/2 Spanish and 1/2 Irish; his mother is English/Scottish. I think if you asked most people who know more about him than just his name, their perception would of him as a white man, and he definitely enjoys white privilege. [Source: http://www.latina.com/entertainment/movies/exclusive-emilio-estevez-charlie-sheens-ethnicity-its-something-he-and-i-never-]

Posted : Apr 12, 2019 05:07


Nann Hilyard

The homeless guys barricaded the entry to the reading room. So why didn’t the cops go around to the staff area and come up the back stairs??

Posted : Apr 04, 2019 03:35

Nann Hilyard

PS i asked that question to Estevez at the ALAMW screening. He said the film is a drama, not a documentary.

Posted : Apr 04, 2019 03:35

Nann Hilyard

PS i asked that question to Estevez at the ALAMW screening. He said the film is a drama, not a documentary.

Posted : Apr 04, 2019 03:35


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