By Dr. Mark Mussman
The Public, a full length motion picture filmed in Cincinnati, centers around the public library, its workers, and its patrons. While several subplots take the viewer into the lives of the main characters, the main plot explicates the need for shelter during a cold winter’s night. During this night, 100 men, who are experiencing homelessness, take shelter in the library’s 3rd floor. The trailer for the movie gives this much information, but the following review may contain spoilers. Overall, the movie does little to enhance the conversation around homelessness, and ultimately, may be seen as a modern day minstrel show, with people of color and “the homeless” acting as the comedic relief. The movie has very few redeeming qualities, but fortunately as a mainstream film, it is not intended to make social change.
The Homeless Coalition created a Media Checklist to help decipher the messages in media that relate to homelessness. The following utilizes this resource to fairly assess the film. Start with the left hand side of the Media Checklist, which accounts for negative representations of people experiencing homelessness, including stereotyping. The use of name-calling, especially the word “bum,” was common in the movie. They used these terms for comedic purposes, but also normalized the word “bum” as the go-to word. This is obviously harmful as it does not recognize that the majority of men who are experiencing homelessness have a job.
The men in the ad-hoc library shelter were more than just perceived as dangerous, they were portrayed as dangerous. The perception of danger was corroborated by the police who acted as if this was a hostage situation, eventually arriving in full riot gear. Beyond that, the men were seen as quarrelsome. Fighting in the bathroom at the library before the occupation and later during the occupation, gave the impression that people who are experiencing homelessness are ready to fight at all times.
As far as “faking it” on the media checklist, it was clear from the use of stereotypical clothing and need for shelter that the individuals in the film were indeed “homeless” although this does not take into account reality, where most people experiencing homelessness cannot be identified by the clothing that they wear. Most people are doubled up, couch surfing, or homeless at home, which allows them to hide their homelessness to the public. The harmful stereotype that people experiencing homelessness must look a certain way gives people the wrong information about types of homelessness, and it allows people to question someone’s level of need: if someone is dressed too nicely, is too clean, they must not be in true need.
One of the most egregious displays of inhumanity in the film was portrayal of the connection between homelessness and mental illness. While we know that the experience of homelessness alone can cause depression, PTSD, and other mental stressors, it was assumed that each person was suffering from mental illness. At one point, the main character, played by Emilio Estevez, exclaimed that a patron was mentally ill, and therefore did not deserve compensation. Throughout the film, jokes around mental illness flew off the tongues of each of the characters, and the assumption was that we, the non-homeless, were on a higher level because everyone else was mentally ill. The mental illness manifested itself mainly in
anti-semetic racist comments, paranoia, and delusion.
The film missed an opportunity to humanize the characters by showing their organizing and solidarity actions. In fact, somehow the patrons (experiencing homelessness) were able to organize more than 100 people to occupy the library, but none of that was shown. What was shown was Emilio Esteves character becoming the main driving force for the occupation. He became the leader of a movement that he didn’t even know about until after it was already organized. He then became the spokesperson, even after it was determined that he was not able to handle the pressure and he was discredited for having experienced homelessness himself. The amount of paternalism that came out of this one aspect alone showed that the film is not from the perspective of people experiencing homelessness, but rather from those who see them from the outside.
While there was not much mention of panhandling in the film, the stereotype as an old man and a drug user was very strong. Other than a couple appearances by an anti-semetic woman, there was little acknowledgement of women or children in homelenssness. What most people don’t realize is that women and children are the fastest growing segment of the population that is dealing with homelessness. With the national average age of homelessness being 9 years old, this film fails to address the family crisis in any way. It erases the most vulnerable while casting everyone as both a drug user and suffering from mental illness, which does nothing to humanize the vast majority of people experiencing homelessness who do not find themselves in either category.
Finally, the police were eventually seen as allies and the only solution to the conflict. The police must be able to arrest their way out of the occupation, but were also humanized along the way. The main police officer, played by Alec Baldwin, was in search of a family member who may be experiencing homelessness. This softened his approach at times, but also gave him the justification to become even more enraged at the people experiencing homelessness in the film, seemingly because he has a personal connection with homelessness. This type of cavalier personality meshed well with the unhinged county prosecutor, played by Christian Slater, who was also humanized throughout the film. There were a lot of missed opportunities to show how difficult it is to experience homelessness, and these two characters did more to trivialize homelessness more than anything. In the end, the occupiers cooperate with the police and willingly gives themselves up for arrest, as if that is the final solution to homelessness.
While we know that shelters are a Band-Aid approach to homelessness, they do function to provide an important resource to many who need it. In Cincinnati, however, the vast majority of people who seek shelter are turned away, yet The Public is not a true story. No one in the movie used person-first language, but actual names were used for many of the characters. Unfortunately, the development of the characters experiencing homelessness was not as full as the library staff, friends, police, and prosecutor characters. We are left with hollowed out characters who are experiencing homelessness, at the same time, as we are given too much information for everyone else. The opportunity to explain the psychological toll that homelessness places on people was missed in the character development and storyline.
The inability of the film to even mention any solution to ending homelessness was apparent throughout the entire movie. Affordable housing, livable wages, and housing protections were not even mentioned once, whether directly or indirectly. Only one cause of homelessness, job loss, was said in passing, as part of a joke. This omission makes the film shallow and unrealistic.
As I’ve already written, the film did not consider age, but it also does not address wealth inequality. At one point, they joke that everyone could stay at one of the library employee’s house, but that was the extent of any discussion regarding wealth inequality. The county prosecutor was said to have grown up in Indian Hill, with a silver spoon in his mouth, but that was used to help him become human in the film. He did not acknowledge this privilege in any meaningful way, as he remained steadfast in his viewpoints throughout the film.
Sadly, racism was not shown as a central cause of homelessness. In fact, the film relied on stereotypes, such as the disinterested, glamour and fame obsessed African American women television reporter, or the mentally ill, drug addicted African American man experiencing homelessness, or the Asian assistant who combs data to find the true story. These stereotypes were often disjointed and rather jarring during the film. These stereotypical characters did little to enhance the plot line, but rather served as gate-keepers to the viewer who desires stereotypes. The racism that was portrayed, as I said before, was anti-semitism, which does not explain the historical and contemporary causes of homelessness in American at all.
Using the Media Checklist, the film The Public is considered harmful. Because it is billed as “Fantastic… A Feel Good Crowd Pleaser” and “Laugh-out-Loud Funny” I had certain expectations before seeing the film. Yet, those expectations did not prepare me for the shock I would feel as the audience laughed at suffering, racism, mental illness, and homelessness in general. I felt as though I was in a room full of people who wanted to harm people experiencing homelessness. While it’s true that it’s important to be able to laugh at yourself, the times when the audience laughed the loudest seemed the most inappropriate to me. It almost seemed hostile, and my party questioned the appropriateness of the laughter during the entire film. It was awkward and disconcerting. I believe that I can’t be an advocate and laugh at people’s suffering, even in a fictional context.