A statue of a polar bear affectionately named Barry White stands tall in a Cincinnati library run by Stuart Goodson (Emilio Estevez).
Imposing. Powerful. White. The placement of this feature serves as recognition of the failure of the American government in protecting marginalised citizens while also symbolising the looming authority that threatens to wreak havoc in the 2018 drama, The Public.
A string of cold-spell-related deaths coupled with the inability to gain access to a shelter on the coldest night of the year motivates several homeless people to occupy a public library. The occupation of the library shifts from refuge to protest, with the inhabitants facing mounting pressure from external forces to leave. An action which, had the inhabitants of the library cooperated with, would see them risk their lives.
No stranger to library shenanigans, Emilio Estevez showcases his range as a filmmaker by serving as writer, director, producer and actor in The Public. Estevez delivers a compassionate take on poverty, race and mental-health-related issues, with the film highlighting the desensitisation of the American public to the struggles faced by people of disadvantaged backgrounds.
From the use of weather to represent mounting tension to the provocative way the film ends, The Public displays similarities to Spike Lee’s 1989 drama Do the Right Thing in both structure and subject matter. The library is set up as being a haven for the community; a welcoming location that doesn’t discriminate based on affluence or race. The conflict that ensues within this supposed safe place offers a reflection on the ineffectiveness of government, and in doing so allows the film to highlight the aggressive practices that are enforced by authorities to maintain control.
The Public functions as a statement piece more than it does an actual movie with examples such as Estevez’s relationship with Taylor Schilling’s character feeling unnecessary. This treatment of character could almost be forgiven had the film not convoluted itself by establishing characters as metaphors for policy instead of realised beings. This feat is most evident in Christian Slater’s hard-boiled-prosecutor-type, who condemns assembly, and Gabrielle Union’s news reporter who – as the saying goes – never allows the truth to get in the way of a good story.
By no means does this impact the quality of the acting within The Public, with the film featuring an impressive cast of actors including Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Alec Baldwin and Jeffrey Wright. All of which hold their own in this provocative caper.
Ironically, the movie’s release occurred when the real Cincinnati Public Library was being taken over by activists who were demanding the leadership not sell one of the downtown buildings.