The Buckeye State is known for many things. Sports fans know Ohio as the home of the Cincinnati Reds and the Bengals. Foodies come for LaRosa’s pizza, Skyline Chili, and Graeter’s Ice Cream. Music lovers jam to the sounds of John Legend, Bootsy Collins, and James Brown. But everything’s not games, food, and music for the Buckeyes. There’s also racial inequality and homelessness. The former is so rampant that Cincinnati has had 11 riots related to race between 1792 and 2001. These are all aspects Emilo Estevez acknowledges or addresses in some way in his latest film, The Public. On the surface, it’s a light drama in which one man tries to do the right thing against the guidance of his superior and local law enforcement. Below that, however, is a weightier story about personal responsibility, social responsibility, and the delicate balance at work to protect the public’s trust.
Stuart Goodson (Estevez) is a supervisor in the social sciences section of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County – Main Library. There, he and his associate Myra (Jena Malone) and security officer Ernesto (Jacob Vargas) look after the stacks of books, answer questions large and small, and do their best to ensure every visitor is afforded the same respect as another. Due to an Artic blast hitting Cincinnati over a prolonged period, a regular group of homeless individuals frequent the Public, as it is known, to avoid the cold during the day and try to figure out shelter for the night. This task grows trickier as local shelters are filling up every night and no additional shelters are being created to manage the need. Realizing that the Public is a piece of public property and therefore a reasonable place for a sit-in, defacto leader Jackson (Michael Kenneth Williams) asks Stuart for help turning his section of the Public into an emergency shelter. The choice Stuart makes inadvertently puts him at the center of a media storm involving a prosecuting attorney with a grudge, a negotiator on a mission, and a hungry-for-the-spotlight reporter.
If you take The Public for what it is, it’s a fairly enjoyable film wherein solid performances from an exceptionally talented cast elevate an otherwise emotionally manipulative story into a rousing tale of truth versus law. If all audiences do is look at it that way, they’ll leave the theater pleased and, perhaps, feeling motivated to do something locally about the homeless in their area. In the film, Jackson states that if all that comes of their civil action is for others to realize, even for a moment, that he and his friends still matter, then it’ll have been worth it. In that regard, Jackson may well get his wish. In control of both script and direction, Estevez makes sure, without resorting to overly dramatic speeches or forced exposition, that Jackson and his friends are people. Some are former vets, some are old, some young, and all of them look after each other since no one else seems interested in doing so. More interestingly, through trickles of dialogue, a commonality is revealed among many of Jackson’s closest friends: they aren’t homeless by choice. While a few have mental health issues, others struggle because they lost their job or have trouble getting sober. With the exception of one amongst them, not a single one is violent or has an interest in violence. For the surface-level socially minded, The Public is the kind of film which will either induce light social activism to match or generate self-affirmation that they do enough to help. That’s why it’s important to look at the details of Estevez’s film to really get the measure of it and his message.
The opening of The Public presents two concurrent stories: that of the role of the library and the condition of Cincinnati. Through a black-and-white vocational video, the role of the library and its staff is established. The staff are gatekeepers of knowledge and disseminators of information to knowledge seekers of all ages. While the video doesn’t explicitly state that all nationalities are welcome, the absence of a non-white face is notable, especially in contrast to the second part of the opening. Shifting to what’s easily presumed as present day, presented in between shots of notable landmarks are various, mostly black, members of the homeless community. As the camera follows them lining up to enter the Public, Estevez as Stuart first appears, walking in to work. Those in line know his name and vice versa. The juxtaposition of imagery – vocation video compared to present day – sets up the undercurrent tension which runs through the whole of the film: the notion that access is conditional. Bringing in Stuart at this point not only serves to shift from the thematic imagery into the narrative, but to immediately establish the long-term relationship between Stuart and the soon-to-be protesters. As the film continues and the pieces are put into place to create the interpersonal tension which makes, what any rational person would think, a simple case of humanitarian aid into a stand-off, race is never made explicit as an instigating factor, yet the dialogue presents characters with implicit biases. For example, Christian Slater’s Josh Davis is first introduced as a prosecuting attorney representing someone with a lawsuit against Goodson, Ernesto, and the head of the Public, Anderson (Jeffrey Wright). He seems a principled man of law until he arrives on scene, at which point he presumes the action is Stuart’s doing and wants the building swarmed by SWAT, his concern over collateral damage diminished because the others with him are homeless. Similarly, lead negotiator Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) is not so much ambivalent to either the occupants’ plight or Davis’s aggressive attitude, but is more interested in finding out why Stuart is so interested in leading the charge (despite obvious evidence that he is not). Nothing in The Public should go as far as it does in terms of escalation, yet it’s wholly believable that it does. Rather than a peaceful solution which would benefit the citizens of Cincinnati during a storm which has killed around a dozen people, authorities are more concerned with law and order than the intent of the law. However, Stuart, in his role as sentinel of information, recognizes that law without knowledge or empathy is merely obedience and cannot serve the people. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Estevez presents, in slowly unraveling Stuart’s backstory, a character with experience on both sides of the confrontation.
There’s a powerful moment at the end of The Public which, in many ways, gets to the heart of Estevez’s multi-layered film. After the events of the film are concluded and the building is once more quiet, the camera slowly moves from one set of stacks to another, the echoes of questions bouncing around the rooms filled with countless, invaluable knowledge before settling on a newly installed white polar bear. As the questions and images fade, Estevez seems to be connecting an animal whose existence is in peril, much like the Public itself. As answers are so easily found at home, why go to the local library for them? Except it’s at the library where experts wait to help, to smooth out the journey of knowledge from ignorance to competence. But the library is more than a place to gain knowledge, because without the human element, all visitors gain is rote memorization of facts. No stories. No imperfections.
This isn’t to suggest that The Public isn’t without its own issues, most of which come from setting up the various characters and their motivations, but once everything is in place, the balance of tension and relief is spot-on. Without question, the existence of the library is taken for granted as a public utility, particularly as the more privileged presume that what the library offers is not needed by the populace. In this regard, Estevez’s choice to use a library as the staging area for an occupation by the exact people who need a safe haven most is not only ideal narratively, but solidifies the emotional weight of the larger themes at play.
In theaters April 5th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.