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. We have a long way to go, both on and off screen, as we continue to put in the work to diversify our profession, including listening to and supporting BIPOC librarians and archivists. 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.
Related posts: Reel Substance: A look at Classes III and IV ; A librarian ‘within the law’
It, aka Stephen King’s It (1990, TV miniseries)
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.
Related posts: Scary clowns + reel librarians
It: Chapter Two (2019)
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:
Related posts: First impressions: ‘It’ (2017) and its library scene ; First impressions: ‘It: Chapter Two’ (2019) and the town librarian hero
Men of Honor (2000)
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:
Related posts: Reel Substance: A look at Classes I and II ; Notable additional occupations for reel librarians
The Time Machine (2002)
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.
Related posts: Stylish male reel librarians
- Escape from Alcatraz. Dir. Don Siegel. Perf. Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Larry Hankin, Paul Benjamin. Paramount, 1979. Based on the book by J. Campbell Bruce.
- It, aka Stephen King’s It. Dir. Tommy Lee Wallace. Perf. John Ritter, Harry Anderson, Annette O’Toole, Tim Reid, Tim Curry. Warner Bros., 1990. Based on the novel by Stephen King.
- It: Chapter Two. Dir. Andy Muschietti. Perf. Isaiah Mustafa, James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Bill Skarsgaard. New Line Cinema, 2019. Based on the novel by Stephen King.
- Men of Honor. Dir. George Tillman Jr. Perf. Robert De Niro, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Charlize Theron, Aunjanue Ellis, Hal Holbrook. 20th Century Fox, 2000.
- Snoek-Brown, Jennifer. “What Hollywood Gets Wrong (and Right!) About Librarians.” I Love Libraries, 26 May 2020.
- The Time Machine. Dir. Simon Wells. Perf. Guy Pearce, Samantha Mumba, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Guillory, Orlando Jones. Warner Bros., 2002. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells.
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