For movie enthusiasts in the know, the local public library is a secretly vital part of their movie-loving lives. Apart from libraries like Portland’s that house truly impressive collections of DVDs and Blu-rays for patrons to take home, libraries consistently screen films of all kinds for the public. For free. Plus, since libraries are dedicated to the truly democratic mission of sharing knowledge, they often cater their film screenings to events of current and enduring relevance. Call it a community service, or just plain proof that libraries and the people who work there are national treasures.
As proof, look down the coast a bit to York, where the York Pubic Library is hosting an extended film, book and discussion series called “Exploring the Complexity of Racism.” Comprising speakers, forums, reading groups and visiting experts, the series, according to chair of the library’s programming committee Susan Yorston, marks the library’s ongoing commitment to education, and to community. “Absolutely, education is part of our mission,” explained Yorston, a former teacher and longtime library trustee and volunteer. “The library is a free place to speak, that’s part of it. All voices are welcome. All doors are open, and since we’re a public library, everything is free.”
The current series grew out of a similar event last year, when local church leaders and others examined the issue of diversity. As Yorston explained, the programming committee vets proposals for library events, and when the opportunity arose to continue the discussion, the library leapt at it. Successfully obtaining a grant to fund the program from the Maine Humanities Council, Yorston and fellow committee members Michelle Sampson, program chair Susan Glick, Nancy Garrick and local Methodist Pastor Effie McAvoy set out to craft a wide-ranging roster of films, books and participants designed to elevate and further that discussion in their community.
With the program having begun on Oct. 20 with a discussion of James Baldwin’s ever-relevant nonfiction book “The Fire Next Time,” Yorston said the event is already drawing promising interest from the York community and elsewhere. “We had 16 attendees on a Saturday morning,” enthused Yorston, “That’s very good.”
Also discussed at that first outing was the film selection of the program going forward, with all attendees especially excited at the chance to give input on what films to show. Said Yorston, “Films just came up automatically, with people making suggestions and getting excited. It was a big hit.” Some films most requested by program participants are out of the library’s reach, like Ava DuVernay’s searing, Oscar-nominated documentary about the role of race in America’s mass incarceration industry “13th,” which is only available through streaming service Netflix. (Yorston, like any good library person, referred people to their Netflix accounts.) However, some other films that might ordinarily be out of the reach of a local library with limited funds are coming to “Exploring the Complexities of Racism” through sheer luck.
“King in the Wilderness,” a 2018 documentary about the late civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King, premiered at Sundance so recently that the film hasn’t been made available on the physical media the library needs to screen it. Luckily for the people of York, however, the film’s composer, Saul Simon MacWilliams, is a York native and made sure that the library could use the film for its Jan. 20 screening. Said Yorston, “His mother is associated with the library, and she was able to get us a physical copy so people can see the film on the big screen. It’s really exciting.”
And while much of the program’s film series is set, with movies like the inspirational “Hidden Figures” kicking off the series on Dec. 16, and the Feb. 24 showing of Spike Lee’s biopic “Malcolm X,” there’s still plenty of room for library patrons to lobby for their favorites. Spike Lee’s rousing true tale of Ron Stallworth, a black cop who infiltrated the KKK, “BlacKkKlansman,” is one such film, recently added to the slate thanks to community feedback.
That community engagement is all part of the library’s ongoing conversation with its patrons, explained Yorston, who credited chairman of the York Public Library’s film commission Bill Lord for the library’s various successful ongoing film series. “At first, I didn’t think we could cover the wide range of the complexity of racism, and the history of racism in politics, in everything in the history of our country,” said Yorston. “But the film component really looks to expand the discussion. Moving into films seemed a natural segue where we thought, ‘Well, we can’t tell the whole story of the issue, but what are the gaps that movies could fill?’ Plus, some people are more visual learners.”
Yorston said that, while she is unaware of any particular inciting incident that might have inspired people to propose this program, she’s well aware that even a town like York, which she describes as “a very open place,” can’t escape the responsibility of examining how prejudice informs the lives of its people, sometimes in unexpected ways. “There’s a lot of discussion about covert and overt racism and how that’s something we have to address as a society,” said Yorston. “A lot of people in our community felt they needed to do something, especially after the events happening in the larger world.”
The York Public Library’s film, book and discussion series “Exploring the Complexity of Racism” will run well into 2019. For a complete rundown of the program’s impressive series of speakers, events and films, check out the York Public Library website, york.lib.me.us.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Starts Friday: “On Her Shoulders.” Wrenching but inspirational documentary about 23-year-old Nadia Murad, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidi people in Iraq to become a vocal and effective advocate for human rights.
Saturday: “Brewmaster.” Portlanders love their beer, which might be why Space has scheduled two Saturday screenings of this sudsy documentary from director Douglas Tirola, about a pair of young aspiring brewmasters looking to make it in the beer game.