Be on the Right Side of Right
San Francisco, CA, USA – The Public , written and directed by Emilio Estevez, made its SF Bay Area debut Sunday, March 10 at Glide Memorial Church. This American drama, which undertakes the topic of homelessness, is set largely in the Cincinnati Public Library. The film had its world premiere on September 9, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival and is set for official US opening through Universal Pictures on April 5, 2019.
The Public, in which Estevez stars with Alec Baldwin, Jena Malone, Christian Slater, Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Jacob Vargas, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Jeffrey Wright, is also a valentine of sorts to librarians and libraries. This “sneak peek” was sponsored in tandem with Glide by Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Library.
“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!”
A packed, appreciative, and vocal house at Glide enjoyed the almost two-hour screening. The movie was followed by a 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 the 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 that they are there only for a brief moment.”
Estevez mentioned he got his idea for the screenplay when reading an essay by Chip Ward in the Los Angeles Times 12 years ago entitled “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 (played by 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 crown. 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.
The Public is set in Cinncinati, Ohio during a record-setting-cold winter. The story begins 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 freezing to death, and avail themselves of the internet, reading material, 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: the news reports a death by exposure to the elements, it seems, daily.
Librarian Stuart Goodson, played by Estevez, is sympathetic to and befriends several of these citizens, and it is during the course of his expressions of sympathy morphing to empathy 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 faulty heating system in his comfortable city walk-up apartment now become a deep-freeze. Through his thoughtful exchanges with a collection of otherwise disparate men in this community sequestered in one of the library’s upper floors, the audience is both entertained and illuminated.
The vignettes of Goodson’s exchanges with this beloved crew of unsheltered souls are brought to a halt as a lead member of that same crew, “Sly” (Michael Kenneth Williams) decides to ignore closing time one evening 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 (Jena Malone) find themselves barricaded with bookshelves and furniture behind 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 asleep. Not a problem, right? However, once the authorities are alerted to this take-over and become involved, tension mounts. 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,” as Goodson’s co-worker wails, “is trying to figure out which side of right we’re on.”
A police hostage negotiations expert is brought in (Alec Baldwin), and the film continues to portray – with embarrassing authenticity- the breadth of inappropriate reactions that everyday citizens have to danger, challenge, and even protecting human dignity. Once the media becomes involved- and by way of a prissy reporter (Gabrielle Union) eager to make a name for herself- and a stunningly Snidley Whiplash-ish city prosecutor (played more than convincingly by Christian Slater) who could not care less about anything other than his political career comes on scene, the tension- and the humor- is multiplied.
“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 uniform appreciation for what had been effectively represented on screen in that time: 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, 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 (and which featured footage shot on location at Glide Memorial Church)- had finally again not only captured this essence in story, but also had presented that story in such a way that it can be presented to the general public as enjoyable entertainment that invites introspection.
Hopefully, future audiences outside that particular loving and sympathetic venue and around the globe will see things- and people- in a different light. Perhaps, suddenly “the” homeless will have a new meaning in that anyone we know- or even ourselves- could be 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…
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.