Emilio Estevez, writer and director, stars in “The Public” – Universal Pictures
Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez) is a librarian at the public library in downtown Cincinnati. He works with Myra (Jena Malone) who wants to be transferred to a more interesting part of the library.
Homeless people who live on the streets make themselves at home in the library during the day, making use of computers and restrooms. Winters are especially difficult for them. The librarians maintain a professional distance from the homeless folks while willing to overlook some of the conditions and behaviors that come with being homeless. This is proven one day when one homeless man with mental challenges removes all his clothing for all to see from the neighboring office buildings. Goodson and security scramble to resolve the situation.
Then a frigid cold front comes descends on Cincinnati and the shelters are full. Many of the library patrons have nowhere to go. Smutts (Michael Douglass Hall) comes up with the idea to stage a sit in and Jackson (Michael K. Williams) spearheads their “occupy” event that results in civil disobedience. Detective Bill Ramstead (Alec Baldwin) worries that his opioid-addicted son is in the library while the local district attorney, Josh Davis (Christian Slater), wants the cops to barge in, guns blazing, and end the sit-in.
Emilio Estevez (The Way) wrote, directed and stars in the film that highlights many social ills of American society today. As Los Angeles, where I live and minister, deals with large homeless camps that cops go in and “clean up” often trashing things the people really need, such as essential paperwork that proves their identity.
What I liked about “The Public” is the humanity the story reveals by taking place in a library. The film is an ode to books and their power to inspire change in people’s lives. Here, it is a sanctuary in a storm, a place of warmth and comfort. At one point Goodson says that books helped him get sober and reading turned his life around. It made me think he might be referring to Martin Sheen’s story, Emilio Estevez’ father, that I wrote about in my 2014 biography “Martin Sheen: Pilgrim on the Way.” Sheen was an alcoholic and at age 37 after a massive heart attack found his way back to sobriety, his family and the church by reading “The Brothers Karamazov,” the 1880 novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
There are banners hanging in plain sight with quotes from famous authors that speak to humanity and literature such as “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” by Frederick Douglass.
“The Public” is rather predictable but is an inspiring and enjoyable watch that reflects the very real situation of the homeless and indigent in America today. Themes of human dignity, the common good, solidarity, empathy, respect, compassion and the need for social change, weave through the plot. The extreme finale to break the sit-in stops the authorities in their tracks. While it may make you grin or guffaw, Estevez makes a point: being homeless when it is freeing cold outside is a reality for too many people in America today and it is time to take a stand in solidarity with the poor.