Be on the Right Side of Right
San Francisco, CA, USA – Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, The Public made its Bay Area debut at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. This American drama, which portrays the unique connection between libraries and the unsheltered, is set largely in the interior of the Cincinnati Public Library.
Estevez stars in The Public as 44-year old librarian Stuart Goodson, and he’s made the film, and his role, a valentine of sorts to librarians and libraries.
“Librarians were the first Google,” Estevez told the crowd gathered in Glide after the screening, and “libraries provided a safe space for me. My parents could drop me off and know that I would not get into trouble!”
The film had its world premiere on September 9, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival and was set for official US opening through Universal Pictures on April 5, 2019. This “sneak peek” was sponsored in tandem with Glide by Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Library. A packed, appreciative, and vocal house at Glide enjoyed the movie with panel that included Estevez, former “homelessness czar” Bevan Dufty, and Lean Esguerra who, in 2009, became the first public library-based homelessness social worker. Esguerra echoed Estevez’s theme of libraries as “safe space.”
“My experience is that libraries mean a lot to those who are homeless,” Esguerra told the crowd. “(Libraries) are a safe haven in many cases because (individuals) forget (their condition) if only for a brief moment.”
With cast including Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Jacob Vargas, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Jeffrey Wright, The Public is set in Cinncinati, Ohio during a record-setting-cold winter. The film opens with a group of unsheltered citizens queued up outside the public library, waiting to come inside at opening time. It is here within the confines of a heated building filled with intellectual and other resources that they can escape the cold, keep themselves safe from death by freezing, and avail themselves reading material, and also of the internet, a bathroom in which to wash and shave, and a place to rest.
What the library can’t provide- even when the shelters are closed due to being filled to capacity- is a place to sleep when sleeping outdoors proves fatal, and the news reports a death by exposure to the elements, it seems, daily.
Librarian Goodson (Estevez) is sympathetic to and befriends several of the homeless men who frequent “the public,” and it is during the course of his expressions of sympathy morphing to empathy regarding the discomfort and dangers of the cold that the audience is drawn to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for what’s happening: Goodson knows a thing or two about being without heat, and it is not just via the ironically-timed lack of it in his comfortable city walk-up now become a deep-freeze due to furnace failure. Through his unique exchanges with a collection of otherwise disparate men now in a beloved community ensconced in one of the library’s upper floors, the audience is both entertained and illuminated.
These vignettes are brought to an abrupt halt, however, when a lead member of that same community, Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) decides to ignore closing time and seize and occupy the library as an emergency shelter for the night. Suddenly Goodson and his bookish would-be grass-roots upstart colleague Myra (played beautifully by Jena Malone) find themselves in library lock-down, bookshelves and furniture battening down the doors of the Social Sciences department.
At the beginning, this seems almost a plausible scenario: it’s deathly cold outside, and the library is warm, emptied of other patrons, and an otherwise accommodating place for people to spend one night for safe rest. Not a problem, right? However, once the authorities are alerted to this presumed-as-hostile take-over, tension mounts.
Estevez’s stunningly Snidley Whiplash-ish city prosecutor Josh Davis (played more than convincingly by Christian Slater) is the anti-hero who could not care less about anything other than his political career. He hauls in a police hostage negotiator Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin), and the film continues to portray – with embarrassing authenticity and detail- the full spectrum of human failure for following law without love (Leviticus 19:17-18 and Mark 12:30-31). Add to this prissy reporter Rebecca Parks (Gabrielle Union) who is eager, first and foremost, to make a name for herself, and a circus ensues.
Although kindly Goodson’s been friendly with those now involved in the “occupy,” it’s difficult to tell what direction the situation might take once he and his co-worker are caught in cross-fire. “Our biggest problem,” Goodson’s co-worker Myra wails as she ducks down in self-protection against potential friendly fire, “is trying to figure out which side of right we’re on.”
Estevez mentioned he got his idea for the screenplay some 12 years ago via Chip Ward‘s essay in the Los Angeles Times “Written Off.”
“The article talked about how libraries have become de facto shelters for the homeless,” Estevez shared. “And also how librarians were becoming ‘first responders.’” Estevez said he was immediately drawn to the topic and wrote a first draft that was “wildly long.” He quipped that it was “also dark and super diabolical,” making reference to how enjoyable it had been to craft his City Prosecutor antagonist character (Slater). The film seemed a “go” in 2008, but then Estevez and his team lost the funding for the project. “We needed to recalibrate,” he told the crowd at Glide. Meanwhile he was making another hit film The Way. Once that project was completed, he “set (his) sights back on (The Public).”
“The Public was way more relevant then,” Estevez shared. “I just had to figure ‘God has a plan here.’” In keeping with that theme, his main character, Stuart Goodson, was gifted to him by way of the inspirational story of a real-life SF Public librarian who, at the age of 44, was illiterate and took two years to learn to read. But there was even more to be explored, including varying perspectives on engaging with unsheltered brothers and sisters- and looking at others as fellow souls.
“I wanted (The Public) to be funny,” Estevez told the crowd. Most films undertaking such serious themes “failed to use humor,” as he described it. “It does humanize us,” Estevez added. “The goal here was to put a face on homelessness,” he shared. “And I also wanted to go further: I wanted to put a mask and a cape on social workers and librarians so they could see themselves (as unsung heroes) on screen!” Well, he’s definitely succeeded there.
The nearly two-hour run time goes quickly. The audience loved and hated the characters, laughed, cried, and then laughed some more. Beyond that, it was apparent that there was a sort of collective appreciation for what had been do effectively captured on screen: the very essence of our societal conflict that prevents right remedy for those who are unsheltered. It’s doubtful that anyone in that particular audience in Glide Memorial Church, where memorials were placed on chairs to represent the over 200 citizens who have perished on the streets, and attending an event presented by Coalition on Homelessness SF and the San Francisco Public Library in concert with Glide, had his or her consciousness raised. However, there was a collective sense of vindication that someone- not since the film The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith (which, by the way, featured footage shot on location at Glide Memorial Church)- had finally again not only captured this essence in story, but also presented that story in such a way that it can be shared with the general public as enjoyable entertainment that invites introspection.
Hopefully, future audiences outside that particular informed, loving, and sympathetic venue will see circumstances- and people- in a different light. Perhaps, suddenly “the” homeless will have a new meaning- especially since, with our world now in turmoil, anyone we know- or even ourselves- could become an unsheltered citizen at some point in time.
And while those in Hollywood might consider films about “the” homeless a tough sell, in informing while also entertaining, Estevez just might be on to something…
©2019Michele Caprario In Memory of Bruce Bellingham 5/8/18
Covenant House: https://www.covenanthouse.org/
National Alliance to End Homelessness: https://endhomelessness.org/
American Library Association: http://www.ala.org/
Director: Emilio Estevez
With: Alec Baldwin, Emilio Estevez, Jena Malone, Taylor Schilling, Christian Slater, Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Gabrielle Union, Jacob Vargas, Michael K. Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Ki Hong Lee, Patrick Hume, Richard T. Jones, Susanna Thompson, Spencer Garrett, Michael Douglas Hall, Bryant Bentley, Nik Pajic, Jared Earland, Dale Hodges.
Rated PG-13 1 hour 59 minutes
PRODUCTION: A Hammerstone Studios, e2 Films presentation. (Int’l sales: CAA, Los Angeles.) Producers: Lisa Niedenthal, Emilio Estevez, Alex Lebovici, Steve Ponce. Co-producers: Taylor Estevez, Kristen Schlotman, Patsy Bouge, David Hillary. Executive producers: Ray Bouderau, Jordan Bouderau, Donal O’Sullivan, Bob Bonder, Bryant Goulding, Craig Phillips, Janet Templeton, Trevor Drinkwater, David Guillod, Richard Hull, Michael Bien, Brent Guttman, Tyler W. Konney, Jeffrey Pollack.
CREW: Director, writer: Emilio Estevez. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Juan Miguel Azpiroz. Editors: Richard Chew, Yang-Hua Hu. Music: Tyler Bates, Joanne Higginbottom.