Emilio Estevez, who made a name for himself in classics like "The Breakfast Club," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "The Outsiders," is back with a new kind of project.
Estevez wrote, directed and stars in "The Public," a film out today that focuses on highlighting the plight of the homeless and other marginalized communities.
The drama, which features an all-star cast including Gabrielle Union, Taylor Schilling, Alec Baldwin and Michael K. Williams, shines a unique light on the role of libraries for the homeless.
A group of homeless patrons stages a sit-in at a downtown public library when a bitterly cold night hits Cincinnati — with no other options for finding shelter overnight. A standoff with the police ensues, as law enforcement officials work to end the illegal demonstration.
Estevez has been working on this project for several years after reading an essay about the role of libraries in helping the homeless survive by Chip Ward, the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
"Although the public may not have caught on, ask any urban library administrator in the nation where the chronically homeless go during the day and he or she will tell you about the struggles of America's public librarians to cope with their unwanted and unappreciated role as the daytime guardians of the down and out," Ward wrote. "In our public libraries, the outcasts are inside."
Estevez said he was incredibly moved by the piece.
"I began to do research into what it would look like if on a particularly cold night, if the patrons, many of whom are homeless and mentally ill, marginalized and poor, staged an old fashion 1960s-like sit-in," he said in an interview with "Good Morning America."
"What would that look like?" he added. "How would law enforcement react? How would the media spin it? And how would politicians use it? Maybe change the narrative of what was happening for their own political gain?"
Estevez believes the movie is relevant now more than ever, as it reflects the realities of many underrepresented communities across the United States, like those dealing with mental illness and living on the streets.
There are reportedly 552,830 people who experienced homelessness in the United States on a single night last year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
"Over the years, of course, we’ve seen this story play out in real time, which was frustrating to me as a storyteller, as a filmmaker, because I kept saying this movie needs to get made," Estevez said about the plot of the film. "After every passing year, it looked like I was kind of an opportunist as a filmmaker because these were playing out in real time."
In the film, Estevez plays Stuart Goodson, a librarian who has built many personal relationships with the homeless patrons and allows them to stage the sit-in.
Emmy-nominated actress Taylor Schilling, known for "Orange Is the New Black," plays Goodson's friend, Angela, who is communicating with him inside the library in an effort to get the truth out about the demonstration the homeless patrons are enacting.
The media's misrepresentation of the sit-in, reporting incorrectly that there is a hostage situation when it's really a peaceful demonstration to enact social change is occurring, is another message seen in the film.
"Right now one of the things that I’ve noticed — and I think has been a theme of the past several years — is there’s, in addition to the amount of injustice and outrage that’s happening, an upswell of activism and active seeking for truth and active desire to participate," Schilling said.
"I think that what my character’s doing in the film, sort of seeking the truth in a desire to get into the center of the story and let the narrative swim outside of what’s actually happening is something a lot of people can relate to," Schilling continued. "I really appreciate her resilience and the desire to keep trying and to seek out answers."
Union, who plays reporter Rebecca Parks, said her role is an accurate representation of how some outlets cover news today.
"I think we see it play out every single day on any of our news stations...there’s the truth and then there’s what we actually report on, and those two things are nowadays rarely the same," she said.
"Homelessness as a global issue is enough of a story to report it accurately," she added. "Humanizing these people that we have wholeheartedly just turned into a thing that we have to get past somehow, as opposed to embracing them as our brothers and sisters — just showing peoples humanity."
"But that’s the truth, and it’s not always a sexy enough headline to get people to click in reporting on the truth," she added. "I represent the reality of media, unfortunately."
Michael K. Williams, who plays Jackson, one of the homeless patrons staging the sit-in at the library, echoed the desire to humanize the homeless.
"These people are human beings," he said. "The biggest thing that you can give a homeless person, if you see them in the street, from my opinion, is a pair of socks and a smile and look them in their eye and genuinely ask them 'What’s your name?' and 'How’s your day going?'"
"Just ask them. Just acknowledge them. Don’t just throw money in their cup," he added. "That was my experience after making this and taking this journey with Emilio and the rest of the cast members. I don’t just walk by and act like they’re not there or they belong there. And I don’t just throw money in the cup to appease my — whatever the hell that’s appeasing."
"Sometimes just getting in their eye level and acknowledging them and saying hello — it's the biggest thing you can do," he said.
The story was "extremely personal" for Williams while he was shooting the film, as he had someone very close to him affected by homelessness.
"They would come to my home, and you know, at a certain time they had to meet curfew because they would lose their bed. They’d have to go back," he said. "That was my relationship; that was this person’s reality at the time when I was filming. It was a humbling chance to jump at the opportunity to humanize my family member."
Baldwin, who plays Detective Bill Ramsted, a character working to shut down the sit-in in the library, said that the film will show people that these safe, warm spaces are invaluable for the homeless.
"The nerve I think [Estevez] touched on is that we’ve completely underestimated the importance of libraries in communities, even in the digital age where you think everybody's home with a device in their hand. A lot of people don’t have that," he said. "They go to the library in order to enrich themselves and what happens there is more important than we ever realized."
"The Public" hits theaters April 5.