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Cincinnati's real-life homeless advocates hope Estevez's 'The Public' generates empathy, discussion

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Posted at 1:14 AM, Mar 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-30 11:55:56-04

CINCINNATI — One particular group of guests at the Friday night hometown premiere of “The Public,” Brat Pack alum Emilio Estevez’s third feature film, arrived in a bus instead of a limousine and wore beige hoodies instead of ball gowns. Many of them — representatives of the anti-poverty organization Maslow’s Army — once lived a situation similar to the one depicted in the film.

Some still do.

“It’s very important to bring the individuals who are experiencing homelessness to this premise because, after all, it’s about them,” Maslow’s Army co-founder Sam Landis said.

The plot of the movie, which was shot in Cincinnati during early 2017, follows a group of homeless people who take over the Cincinnati Public Library’s main branch after one of their number freezes to death during an especially harsh winter.

Writer-director Estevez first showed the script to star Christian Slater in 2007, hoping it would strike a culturally resonant chord in a national climate of growing economic inequality. (Although the Occupy Wall Street movement would not begin for another four years, Estevez described the project as essentially “an Occupy film” in an interview with WCPO’s Tanya O’Rourke.) It was still relevant — maybe even more so — by Friday night.

“There’s a huge parallel to what’s going on out there in reality, what people saw with the death of Ken Martin frozen at a bus stop the day after Christmas two years ago, and this movie,” Landis said, referring to a one-time Maslow’s Army volunteer whose death inspired him to push for a 24-hour heated facility specifically for people without stable housing.

Months after Martin’s death, a large-scale encampment of displaced people on Third Street sparked a clash between local government officials who sought to dissolve it and community advocates who argued the government’s solutions prioritized hiding the problem rather than helping people experiencing homelessness.

RELATED: Six months after Cincinnati's tent city, new solutions for homelessness remain elusive

In the center of the conflict was a man known as Bison, then the self-proclaimed mayor of the contested tent city. He attended Friday night’s premiere, too, complimenting what he described as a realistic choice of setting.

“I think it’s real interesting that it’s here (and) it’s in the library,” said Bison, who eventually found housing and helped others do the same. “That’s a building where there’s a lot of people who don’t have anywhere to go, that’s where they go.”

He added he hoped “The Public” would encourage audience members from different walks of life to re-evaluate their existing beliefs about homelessness and the people who experience it.

“Before you judge and you’re so quick to say, ‘Oh, that’s dirty,’ or, ‘They’re nobody,’ or, ‘They didn’t want to get their act together,’ ask questions,” he said.

Estevez said he hopes for the same thing.

“Homelessness is not a condition,” he said. “It’s a situation. Let’s help individuals who are experiencing homelessness get out of that situation. I think we can do that.”

"The Public," which stars Estevez, Slater, Alec Baldwin, Jeffrey Wright and Michael K. Williams, opens in theaters April 5.