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‘The Public’ movie examines role libraries play in serving the homeless

Emilio Estevez (right) plays a passionate librarian in "The Public."

Emilio Estevez (right) plays a passionate librarian in "The Public." | Greenwich Entertainment

When social issues are ignored, they don’t just disappear. They’ll end up spilling over into one’s own spaces.

That’s the message of Emilio Estevez’s most recent project “The Public,” the director’s film — over a decade in the making — that follows a group of homeless patrons at a Cincinnati library who stage an overnight sit-in, refusing to exit into the bitter cold.

“These are not the easiest movies to get made, but when you do get them done and put them in front of an audience. … I feel a lot less crazy, like the last 12 years were not in vain. Because this is a story that needs to be told,” Estevez said after a screening of the film at the Davis Theater last month.

As the sit-in continues, the stakes intensify as police, politicians and the press turn their eyes to the library and librarian Stuart Goodson, played by Estevez, who finds himself inside when the protest begins.

Estevez said he hoped to show a more nuanced portrayal of homelessness than often depicted, as evidenced in the characters’ range of personalities. He also brought in homeless people living in Cincinnati as extras in the film, which hits theaters Friday.

But listening to the audience as they watched the film, you might not have known “The Public” tackled such a serious subject. The uplifting, feel-good movie kept the 150-plus people at the March screening laughing and applauding for its full two hours — especially in its final 20 minutes, which Estevez warned not to spoil.

Though the film’s set a few hours away in Ohio, Estevez said the issue the film tackles isn’t isolated to one state. The Chicago Public Library system’s one of many across the country that’s hired a social worker as the spaces continue to serve as what Estevez called “de facto homeless shelters.”

For those social workers and librarians, some of whom were present at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless-sponsored screening, Estevez said he wants the film to bring attention to the large responsibilities often placed solely on them.

“Use this movie to make your jobs easier, to further the conversations,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Estevez stars alongside Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Taylor Schilling, Gabrielle Union and Chicago-based hip-hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith.

Smith, who’s character Big George is homeless, said the film’s subject matter resonated with him.

His father, who he didn’t know as he grew up, dealt with homelessness for decades and, when the two first were introduced, a public library was the meeting ground.

“This was the place — besides the park or the homeless shelter — where he felt he had dignity to meet his son,” Smith said after the screening.

Chicago-based hip-hop artist and philanthropist Che “Rhymefest” Smith plays Big George, a homeless man, in “The Public.” | Greenwich Entertainment

Smith also wrote three original songs for the film.

During shooting, he was producing a song and rapping when a young woman came inside to clean the room. As Smith continued rapping, “she just started crying in the middle of it.”

“You’re rapping about homelessness and I’m homeless,” Smith said the woman told him.

“It just brought to me this understanding that homelessness is not just raggedy clothes, on the street. Homelessness is the working poor, it’s people who sleep in their cars, it’s people who couch surf — that’s the takeaway from it.”