As I wrote in my post “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians” on the I Love Libraries blog, portrayals of librarians in film are becoming more ethnically diverse. Of course, we still have a long way to go, both on and off screen, as we put in the work to diversify our profession. Here are 5 movies that feature Black reel librarians in major roles.
The movies are arranged below in alphabetical order by title.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
This Class III film is an engrossing prison break film featuring the most famous prison of them all, Alcatraz.
Paul Benjamin plays English, a taciturn and well-respected Black inmate who is also the prison librarian. He teaches Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) how to survive in Alcatraz. In one scene, English saves Frank from getting beaten up by another inmate. English also reveals that he is serving two life sentences for killing two White men in self-defense.
Below is a video of a scene from the movie, featuring Paul Benjamin as English.
In this Class I TV miniseries based on Stephen King’s book, a group of friends who name themselves the Losers’ Club defeat a demonic clown creature, Pennywise (Tim Curry). Thirty years later, they have to face “It” once more.
Tim Reid plays Mike Hanlon, the only Black member of the Losers’ Club. He stays behind in the town and becomes the town librarian and “answer man.” Mike contacts the friends to return to the town and sets the entire plot of the second half in motion. Mike is the true hero of the story.
Marlon Taylor plays the younger version of Mike in the miniseries.
Below is a video montage of Mike’s and Bill’s friendship.
In this Class I film and movie remake, Isaiah Mustafa subtly shines in his version of the town librarian hero Mike Hanlon. Mike’s narration begins the film, he calls all the friends back to town, and he figures out how to beat “It.” He grounds the story, beginning, middle, and end. This film includes lines and scenes that highlight Mike’s backstory, agency, and experiences as a Black man, as well as the long-lasting effects of racism and “white flight” in the town.
Chosen Jacobs plays the younger version of Mike in this film, seen in flashbacks, and in its prequel, the 2017 film It: Chapter One. (Unfortunately, in the first film, Mike’s backstory is given short shrift, and young Ben, the White new kid in town, takes over the role as researcher.)
The video below is an interview with Isaiah Mustafa about his role as Mike:
This Class II film is based on the true story of the first Black American Navy diver, Carl Brashear (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.).
Carl goes to the local library for tutoring assistance, and a library assistant, Jo (played by Aunjanue Ellis) decides to help him. She also reveals that she has the goal of getting into medical school. The character of Jo is a bright spot in this film, and Ellis plays her role with wit, confidence, and a wry sense of humor.
Demene E. Hall plays Mrs. Biddle, the director of the library — and although we only see her briefly, it’s important to see a Black woman in a library position of authority and leadership.
Here is a brief clip from one of the movie’s library scenes, featuring the character of Jo:
In this Class III film, a disillusioned inventor (Guy Pearce) builds a time machine and travels 800,000 years into the future.
Orlando Jones plays the memorable and indelible character of Vox, a holographic librarian, and he supplies information about time travel and the history and evolution of the planet and its population. Vox is the heart and soul of this film, literally “the compendium of all human knowledge.”
The video below introduces us to the character of Vox.
Last week, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that federal employment discrimination law, Title VII, protects gay and transgender employees. It’s a historic ruling — one long overdue! — and Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion. And it’s even sweeter for this ruling to come during Pride Month. You can read more about the decision here on the SCOTUS blog. We still have a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, but this moment is one to savor.
It also got me thinking about the 1993 film, Philadelphia, which earned Tom Hanks his first Best Actor Oscar for portraying Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who gets fired from his law firm after his homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis are discovered by his law partners. With the help of lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), Beckett sues his law firm for wrongful dismissal. This film was released 27 years ago — repeat, 27! YEARS! AGO! — and only now, in 2020, would Beckett be recognized under Title VII protections.
Here is a trailer for the film, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen it. The movie is available to rent via Amazon Prime.
Law library scene
At first, Miller does not want to help represent Beckett, so Beckett has to start researching on his own. And that leads us to a pivotal scene at a law library, which comes in at about a quarter of the way through the film. Beckett is researching materials in a law library, and Miller is at a nearby table.
A reel librarian, played by Tracey Walter, approaches Beckett with a book on AIDS discrimination he has found for him. The librarian, who is white and male, looks to be in his 40s, with thin, balding hair. He is conservatively dressed, in a sweater, tie, and button-front shirt, and he is not wearing glasses. Beckett thanks him for the book, but the librarian does not leave.
Let’s listen in:
Librarian: We do have a private research room available.
Beckett: I’m fine right here, thank you.
Another patron then approaches the table and asks the librarian for help finding a case. The librarian tells him, “Just a moment, I’ll be right with you.” He then turns back to Beckett, sighs heavily, wipes his chin, and then leans in slightly in order to place his hand on the library table.
Librarian: Wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a research room?
Beckett [looks around and coughs]: No. Would it make you more comfortable?
Miller then gathers his stuff and walks over to Beckett.
Miller: Beckett, how you doing?
Beckett: Counselor. Huh.
Beckett then stares back at the librarian, who then looks up at Miller. Miller stares down the librarian and, in a gesture of challenge, nods his head. The librarian then drops his eyes to Beckett.
Librarian (to Beckett): Whatever, sir.
The librarian turns to leave, and then so does the other patron sitting at Beckett’s table. Miller stays to review the material that Beckett has gathered, and he decides to take the case.
The scene lasts two minutes and was filmed at the Fisher Fine Arts Library, in the Furness Building on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia. As it’s a pivotal scene — one that sets up the rest of the film — and the librarian makes an (unfortunately) memorable impression, this film and librarian portrayal land in the Class III category, films in which the librarian(s) plays a secondary role, including a minor character in a memorable or significant scene.
You can watch the entire library scene here in this YouTube video:
Assessing this library scene and its significance
This scene is awkward, and purposefully so. There’s not a lot of dialogue in this scene, but a whole lot of long stares, silence, and sub-text that speak volumes in-between the gaps of spoken text. The camera angles also shift, reflecting each person’s perspective. I want to break down what I imagine is happening with each major character in this scene: the law librarian, Miller, and Beckett. Full disclosure: I am writing from the perspective of a white, cisgender woman, so my perspectives are limited. If you have alternative, different, and/or more nuanced ideas of what’s happening in this scene, please leave a comment and share!
Law librarian (Tracey Walter):
What is going on in this reel librarian’s head as he decides to keep standing and asking Beckett if he wants a private room? He’s clearly connected the dots between the request for an AIDS discrimination case and Beckett, who is visibly pale, with watery eyes and a cap to cover what is presumably a bald head. The librarian believes Beckett himself has AIDS. Therefore, I can imagine he is rationalizing to himself that he is being kind to this patron, by framing his recommendation as a question (“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable…?”) rather than as a command. I can also imagine that he is rationalizing to himself that he is protecting other patrons from this person who has AIDS. These kinds of rationalizations reflect the time period and the uninformed attitudes about AIDS, but they are not excuses for discrimination.
I wonder what’s going on in this reel librarian’s head as he processes the collective stare-downs from Beckett and Miller. Who has the power in this situation at the beginning, and does that shift during this scene? I think the librarian is weighing his options and ultimately decides that it’s not worth his effort to continue trying to hassle Beckett into a private room, because (a) he’s outnumbered, and (b) he doesn’t want to call attention to himself and also be accused of racism — although when it was just homophobia, he was fine with it — because it’s clear Miller, a Black man, is a lawyer and supports Beckett. In that moment, the power shifts from the librarian to Miller and Beckett, and it’s all done through stare-downs and sub-text.
The librarian also tries to have the last word in this low-key stand-off, but it’s weak: “Whatever, sir.” He also sighs and shrugs as he turns away. It’s clear that he hasn’t learned any positive lesson from this interaction.
The camera angles used in this scene also make the audience feel like we’re in Beckett’s position, too, and that we’re being looked down on by the librarian.
Joe Miller (Denzel Washington):
At the beginning of this scene, Miller stops chewing, and his entire body gets very still. He recognizes the librarian’s discrimination even before Beckett does.
After overhearing the librarian recommending a private room, he pushes his stack of books in front of him. Why? To disassociate himself from the situation? To assess the situation without being spotted himself? To deflect any other discrimination the librarian may be tempted to dish out? To see and assess how Beckett handles himself in that situation?
When he overhears Beckett standing up to the librarian, that’s when Miller’s face shifts and changes. That’s when he stands up and joins Beckett. Miller, a Black man, faces discrimination due to the color of his skin. Beckett is facing discrimination due to his sexuality and AIDS status. Together, they are stronger.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks):
Beckett seems to be taken aback at first by the librarian’s reaction. Beckett thanks the librarian warmly at the beginning of the scene for the book he requested, and then he settles back into working. But he quickly reassesses the situation when the librarian will not leave.
He does not allow the librarian to put the onus on him regarding the private room. Instead, Beckett redirects the librarian’s question back onto the librarian: “Would it make you [the librarian] more comfortable?” He’s not going to play this game that the librarian is trying to play. He is calling out the librarian and his real motives.
Beckett also ensures the librarian knows that Miller is a lawyer. When Miller comes over, Beckett pauses before referring to him as “Counselor.” Such a smart move! This signals to the librarian that he’s up against two lawyers, and he, the law librarian, is not going to win this fight today.
Why this scene matters
It is a small battle, sure, but this is no ordinary fight — this is a battle of wills, a battle against discrimination. This scene sets up an ordinary, everyday kind of discrimination, in perhaps the least likely place: a law library. Libraries are usually viewed as safe, quiet spaces. But even in a so-called “safe” space, biases and discrimination and micro-aggressions lurk. And it’s important to show to the audience that neither Beckett nor Miller will allow this small act of discrimination to go unchallenged. If the audience can understand and buy into the fact that this librarian was wrong in this small act of discrimination, then they can understand that the bigger acts of discrimination, like being fired, are wrong, too. It is a pivotal moment in the film, and this film reflected a pivotal moment at that time, when we needed mainstream films that humanized gay men, that exposed the everyday discrimination that LGBTQ+ persons faced (and continue to face), and pushed back against the baseless fears that people at that time had about AIDS and homosexuality.
It is not like we’re post-discrimination today — we are in the streets protesting against discrimination right now — but films and moments like these are important in broadening the message of inclusivity and exposing the ripple effects of discrimination and micro-aggressions.
This statement is applicable here, too. The reel librarian in Philadelphia (1993) is demonstrating anti-LGBTQ+ bias. Plain and simple — and oh-so-devastating. He reflects society at large in this moment. As such, he serves as Information Provider. He is providing information to the audience that LGBTQ+ discrimination can, and does, happen anywhere. Even in a library. Even from a librarian. It is a sad and uncomfortable truth that librarians can be as discriminatory as anyone else, which is especially disheartening because our job is to help people.
This month, our country is better for expanding employment rights and protections to gay and transgendered people. But we cannot cease fighting for progress, equality, and equity. And we cannot shy away from our own failings, reel and real, past and present.
Last month, I shared the news about my post, “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) about Librarians,” published on ALA’s I Love Libraries blog. The news also got shared on their social media channels via Twitter and Facebook, and many people shared comments about their own favorite reel librarians. It was so fun to read everyone’s comments! I also received lots of emails from new readers, sharing their personal favorites and tipping me off to some reel librarians I then added to the site. Below, I have highlighted the new additions. Thank you, readers — enjoy!
Sherman, aka “Swampy,” on Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015, animated series):
Via Twitter, WieBib shared this video from the animated series Phineas and Ferb, featuring Sherman the librarian, who used the stage name “Swampy” when he was a drummer for a band! Steve Zahn voiced this recurring character. I added this series to my TV Shows page.
Librarian on Hilda (2018-2020, animated series):
Via Twitter, Lawrence Bolduc shared this video from the Netflix animated series, Hilda. Kaisa Hammarlund voiced this recurring reel librarian character. I added this series to my TV Shows page.
Penny Adiyodi, Librarian, on The Magicians (2015-2020, USA)
I had already included The Magicians on my TV Shows page, along with the Head Librarian character, Zelda Schiff (played by Mageina Tovah). Via Twitter, Rachel Rawlings alerted me to the additional librarian character at the Library of the Neitherlands, Penny Adiyod (played by Arjun Gupta). I have not yet seen an episode of The Magicians — it began as a series right before we cut off our cable subscription — but I’ve heard good things about it. It’s definitely on my radar to watch.
This video highlights a scene from Season 4 with Zelda, with a “sneak peek” of Penny at the end of the clip.
“A Trip to the Library” scene from the 1963 musical play She Loves Me
George H. emailed me about a “Trip to the Library” scene and song from the 1963 musical play She Loves Me, written by Joe Masteroff, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and music by Jerry Bock. This play is the third (!!!) iteration of the 1937 play Parfumerie by playwright Miklós László, which inspired the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner, starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan; the 1949 musical In the Good Old Summertime, starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; and the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.
The “A Trip to the Library” scene and song occurs in Act Two of the musical play. Here is a video of the scene from the 1993 Broadway production of the play:
Citation searching in an episode of The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019):
Bill B. emailed me about a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory TV series, in which Leonard and Raj go to a library to research citations for a scholarly article. This episode, entitled “The Citation Negotiation,” aired in November 2018. I added this episode to my TV Shows page.
I totally agree with Bill when he stated:
They go to the (physical) university library and haul bound volumes off the shelf. There is nary a hint of using databases for the task. Very surprising for a seemingly savvy show.
Here’s a clip from the episode that features the library:
Librarian in an episode of Mister Peepers (1952-1955)
Via Facebook, Edith A. shared her memories of the librarian in an episode of Mister Peepers, a TV show starring Wally Cox. Here’s how she described it:
My favorite will be the librarian character who did the book check-in or check-out routine on the old Mr. Peepers (Wally Cox) show. […] I will always remember that routine with a smile.
I tracked down the episode and character — Charity Grace played the Librarian in “The Leather Chair” episode, which aired in November 1953 — and added this episode to my TV Shows page.
I couldn’t track down a video of that specific library scene, but here’s a digitally restored excerpt from another episode to enjoy:
Mr. Ambrose on Bob’s Burgers (2011-, animated series)
Rachel K. emailed me about the librarian character, Mr. Ambrose, on the animated series Bob’s Burgers. This character is voiced by comedian Billy Eichner. I added this series to my TV Shows page.
Here’s a clip from an episode about “the strangest librarian ever” … not encouraging words about a reel librarian!
Sean on A Discovery of Witches (2018-)
Steve L. emailed me about this TV series, A Discovery of Witches, based on the first book in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. (It’s been renewed for a second season!) The series is primarily set in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the librarian character of Sean is played by Tomiwa Edun. I added this series to my TV Shows page.
Here’s a trailer for the series (which looks AWESOME!):
Mika Coretti in Ninja Assassin (2009)
Megan J. emailed me about the 2009 film, Ninja Assassin, directed by James McTeigue and starring Korean pop star Rain and British actress Naomie Harris as Mika Coretti. I have added this film to my Master List.
Here’s how Megan describes the reel librarian connection:
She [Mika] has discovered that a string of deaths of top ranking officials worldwide has been carried out by the Ozunu which puts her in danger of being killed. Raizo becomes her protector.
At a later point in the film she says to an unconscious Raizo, “I know you can’t hear me, so I’m sure this doesn’t matter but I’m going to say it anyway. I’m just a forensic researcher. It’s like a fancy way of saying I’m a librarian. By myself I can’t do anything to help you, but I wanted to thank you for saving my life. And I hope you can forgive me for this.“
Here’s a trailer for the film:
Continuing the conversation:
Thanks again to everyone who commented or emailed me! Have you seen any of these (new-to-me) reel librarian characters or library scenes? Please leave a comment and share! 🙂
If you are a fan and reader of this Reel Librarians blog (as always, thank you!), then you will probably also love the I Love Libraries blog, an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) that shines the spotlight on fun stories for library lovers. A few weeks ago, I was super excited (and surprised!) to be contacted by a content manager at the I Love Libraries site, who asked me about collaborating on a guest post and exploring some questions about librarians in film and media. It took me about two seconds to say YES. ❤
Last month, in the “Spring training and special collections in ‘Major League’ (1989)” post, we ran the bases delving into the reel librarian character in Major League (1989). In that film, Rene Russo — in her feature film debut! — plays Lynn Wells, the world-class swimmer-turned-special collections librarian. Going through Russo’s film credits, I hadn’t realized she also returned in the sequel, Major League II(1994). It felt fitting, therefore, to continue the spring training. Shall we?
Major League II was available to watch for free via Amazon Prime.
*MILD SPOILERS BELOW*
The sequel, although released 5 years after the original (and far superior!) film, is set just one year later, as radio commentator Harry Doyle (Bob Uecker) gets us all caught up. Omar Epps has replaced Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hays, Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn (Charlie Sheen) has sold out to corporate sponsorship, and Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen) has retired and is the new owner of the Cleveland Indians team. Will they make it to the World Series this year? No pennants for correct guesses. 😉 This sequel is strictly by-the-numbers, with no surprises, or originality.
The sequel begins again during spring training, and catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) learns he has been cut from the team. His knees have finally given out, but he’s been mentoring a younger player. Therefore, Dorn and head coach Lou Brown (James Gammon) ask him to join the team as an assistant coach.
At 19 minutes into the film, he finds himself at home with Lynn. They’re seated around the kitchen table, talking about his future.
Jake: Called everywhere, but nobody’s looking for a 41-year-old catcher with bad knees.
Lynn: Well, it’s not like you don’t have other options. Alan Bellows wants you to join his brokerage firm.
Jake: And Jack Pursoff wants me to head up one of his Pepsi distributorships.
Lynn: And you’d be close to home.
Jake: Yeah, and I’d make a hell of a lot more money than I would as a coach. So what if I never made it to a World Series?
Lynn: Well, I think it’s pretty obvious what you ought to do.
Lynn says this last line softly and in close-up. This scene only lasts a minute, and Lynn has three lines total, but she makes them count. It’s clear that they are still committed to each other, and she supports Jake going back to the team. Plus, this scene sets up the World Series plotline. Reel librarians are so efficient! 😉
We NEVER see Lynn again in this film. Russo’s star had risen in-between the original film and the sequel — she had co-starred in Lethal Weapon 3 in 1992 and In the Line of Fire in 1993, and she was gearing up for the one-two punch of Outbreak and Get Shorty in 1995 — so I suppose they were lucky to get her for one day to make this cameo. It’s odd, though, to me that Rene Russo went uncredited for this cameo.
And of course, there’s no mention of any library in this short scene. You would never know from watching this sequel that Lynn is a librarian. But because we know that from the original film, I’m classifying this sequel as a Class IV film, in which reel librarians make a cameo appearance.
Had you forgotten about the Major League IIsequel? Did you ever know that a third outing, Major League: Back to the Minors (1998) even existed?! If you’re tempted to watch the sequels, I would suggest just going back and rewatching the original comedy classic!
Major League II. Dir. David S. Ward. Perf. Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen. Warner Bros., 1994.