‘Just Cause’ to re-examine a Latina newspaper archivist portrayal

“Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert.”

It’s scary season again during the month of October, and this is a time when I focus on analyzing reel librarian portrayals in horror movies, thrillers, etc. We’re also finishing up the annual observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15-Oct. 15, when we celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” This is a time to research and reflect on more diverse stories and figures of Hispanic history — and present. It’s also a time to reflect on and re-examine one’s own biases. There are unfortunately very few Latinx portrayals of reel librarians or archivists; in my most recent “Reel librarians of color” post from earlier this year, I have identified only 4 (!) Latinx reel librarian portrayals thus far. Because of the “scary season” period, I chose to revisit the 1995 thriller Just Cause, in which Liz Torres, a well-known American character actor and comedian with Puerto Rican heritage, plays newspaper archivist Delores Rodriguez, a character with Cuban roots.

At first glance, Just Cause (1995), which stars Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne, Blair Underwood, Kate Capshaw, and Ed Harris, seems to have a patina of respectability and pedigree, thanks to its extremely talented cast. Connery also served as an executive producer on the film, which is based on John Katzenbach’s 1992 novel of the same name. Here’s an original trailer for the movie, which outlines the plot:

“Just Cause (1995) Official Trailer – Sean Connery, Laurence Fishburne Movie HD” video, uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License.

As I think you can tell from the trailer, this film is a MESS. In my opinion, this movie actually gets worse the more you watch it and the more you think about it. I found myself nodding in agreement at this recent analysis of the film, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” a review which points out how problematically racist this film is, with scenes and themes of white saviors, white privilege, and racist stereotypes. This movie wants to get credit for “good intentions” when Sean Connery’s character, a law professor, calls out in a legal debate the unjust imbalance of Black men in prison and Black men who are prosecuted, but the script and its “shock” twist ending end up contradicting itself.

No surprises, then, when I share that the portrayal of reel archivist Delores, a Latina, is not particularly positive, either. Let’s examine the 3 scenes in which Delores features.

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS ALERT*

Introduction to the newspaper archives and archivist

At 13 1/2 minutes into the movie, law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) has traveled down to Florida with his wife (Kate Capshaw) and young daughter (a very young Scarlett Johansson in her second movie role!). Paul visits his father-in-law, Phil Prentiss (Kevin McCarthy), who seems to be the head of a Miami newspaper, in order to get access to records and archives. Phil also takes the opportunity to diss the newspaper (“Not a bad paper as papers go, but of course that’s not saying a hell of a lot”) as he walks Paul through the newspaper offices. (White privilege alert! This movie has a lot of “good ol’ boy” types of scenes.)

Phil introduces the archivist Delores to Paul. We see that the archives room is filled with stacks and stacks of folders atop every surface. We also get a glimpse of Delores’s work station cubicle and computer. And Delores seems to be the only archives staff? (Compare to the 2015 film Spotlight, in which there are multiple newspaper researchers.)

A glimpse of the newspaper archives in Just Cause (1995)
A glimpse of the newspaper archives

Phil: Delores, sweetheart.

Delores: Hey, Mr. Phil. [They hug.]

Phil: It’s been a long time. This is Paul Armstrong, my son-in-law. [Delores takes off her glasses.]

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Phil: Delores Rodriguez. Keeper of the archives. News trivia expert. Buried three husbands. Were it not for Libby [his wife], I could well be photo op #4. 

Delores: And how is Libby’s health these days?

Phil: It’s very good.

Delores: Pity. [Phil chuckles.]

Phil: Business. Paul needs to see what you’ve got on the Joanie Shriver murder trial.

Delores: That poor kid from Ochopee? 

Phil [to Paul]: Watch your back in here.

Delores then looks over Paul, bites her lip, and hums as she walks him over to the archives section, which has compressed shelving that she has to crank to open.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores only puts her glasses on to read files. She then takes off her glasses again when she returns to Paul.

We then cut to Paul seated at a microfiche machine reader, and we see a montage of articles relating to the murder case that led to the conviction of Bobby Earl Ferguson (Blair Underwood).

Delores: So far, we are online back to 1985. Everything else before that is still on microfiche, but I can dig around the back and see what else I can find.

Paul: How long will that take?

Delores [leaning in, wearing her glasses this time]: Oh, that depends, sweetheart. You would be amazed at what I can do with a little help.

Paul smirks, sighs, and turns back to microfiche machine.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Three side notes here:

  • The captions state that Delores “sings Guatanamera in Spanish” while she’s opening up the archives. OF COURSE I looked that up, and “Guatanamera” is a very famous Cuban song, and the title translates in English to “(The Woman) from Guantánamo.” This tidbit is primarily why I assume the character of Delores is meant to have Cuban heritage.
  • The call number label on the right-hand shelves reads: “Photos / Names / RAN-STI” (sorry the screenshot above is blurry, but you can make it out), but the stickers on the folders in that shelf clearly have “DEL” on them. The left-side shelf has folders with “ADJ” labels, so the “RAN-STI” call number label on the outside of the shelves is clearly an error. (Yes, I analyze call numbers on screen VERY thoroughly, as evidenced in this prior post, because incorrect call numbers are a personal pet peeve.)
  • Why is Paul on a microfiche machine? Delores just said that they have everything online back to 1985, which should cover the time period he’s looking at. And he’s clearly not searching archives online at a computer, because we can see the standard microfiche/film screen markings on the article closeup.

This introductory scene lasts two minutes total. What did we learn from this scene about Delores?

  • Delores is definitely NOT the “Spinster Librarian” character type. We learn that she has been married multiple times, and she is still clearly interested in men, from her flirtatious remarks at both Phil and Paul. But she is written more as an aggressive, man-mad flirt — although Phil is the one who first calls her “sweetheart” and jokes about her love life while introducing her!
  • Delores clearly cares about her appearance, wearing colorful clothing, full makeup, and her hair in an updo hairstyle. Overall, she makes quite a glamorous impression. But is she also being sartorially styled to evoke a Latina stereotype of the “sex siren and feisty-Latina trope“?
  • Delores is self-conscious about her glasses — or perhaps she has traditional, old-fashioned ideas about female beauty and glasses (e.g., that old saying that “men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses”).
  • Delores is most likely Cuban or of Cuban heritage, based on the Cuban song she is humming. (And she is being played by a Latina actress of Puerto Rican heritage.)
  • Delores immediately demonstrates her knowledge of the murder trial and location. However, her knowledge of the murder and phrasing of “that poor kid from Ochopee” comes off more like gossip, rather than professional knowledge.

This scene could have been a much more straightforward scene, with a brief introduction and then the newspaper archivist pulling the necessary files to propel the plot. I’m left with a lot of “Why?” questions. Why did they include so much backstory for a minor character? Why was Delores portrayed this way, as an incurable flirt always “on the prowl” for her next husband? Why do the male characters have to smirk at her and treat her like a running gag? Why was she portrayed as more of a gossip than a knowledgeable professional? Why isn’t she thanked for her help? Why is Delores seemingly the only Latinx character in a film set in Miami and the surrounding rural counties?

And as this article points out:

When it comes to Latino representations in Hollywood, they’re often rooted in stereotypes. Most female characters are either cleaning ladies or spicy Latinas.

Tre’vell Anderson, “4 Latino stereotypes in TV and film that need to go,” LA Times, 27 April 2017.

While Delores is not a Latina cleaning lady in Just Cause, she is portrayed as a “spicy Latina” stereotype.

Spoiler: It goes downhill from here.

More microfilm research

At 48 mins into the movie, Paul returns to the newspaper archives for information on another convicted serial killer, Blair Sullivan (Ed Harris), who Bobby Earl claims is the real killer. We get another closeup of microfiche.

(Click each image in the collage above to view in a larger window.)

Delores: They called it “The Pilgrimage of Death.” Sold a lot of papers. The guy started out with his landlady in New Orleans, a prostitute in Mobile, and a sailor in Pensacola. And then he got real busy — a body every 100 miles.

Paul: Pensacola? When was that? 

Delores: Oh, late April, early May? You know, it was incredible. APBs in 3 states, FBI flyers all over the place,  and nobody spots him.

In this 30-second scene, Delores’s information once again propels the plot forward. She is serving as an Information Provider in this scene. But again, the script is written as though Delores is gossiping (“sold a lot of papers,” and “then he got real busy“), rather than being the informed professional that she is. It comes across so contradictory and condescending to me. Delores is also dressed in another colorful top, and she is wearing her glasses again.

Party scene

At one hour and 9 minutes into the movie, the legal team gathers for a celebration party at the newspaper businessman’s home. (Is that a conflict of interest? Very sketchy.) Also, they planned this party before inviting Bobby Earl to it — in an earlier scene, he turned down the invite and said that he had other plans — even though they are ostensibly celebrating Bobby Earl. I guess they’re really just wanting to celebrate the “just cause” and not the Black man at the center of their “just cause”? Are they just wanting to celebrate how the White men saved a Black man from injustice? (Fumes of White supremacy and White saviors here…)

Surprise, surprise, Delores is at the party — and looks to be the only person of color there. We get to see Delores out of the archives, and she is stunning with bright red lipstick and curly her hair down and one side pinned back with a bright red flower.

As Phil gets drinks to pass around for a toast, he passes by Delores, who is talking with Bobby Earl’s attorney, Lyle (Chris Sarandon).

The newspaper archivist, Delores, attends a party.
#TeamDelores

Lyle: The firm’s been more successful than I ever dreamed it would be when I started it.

Delores: So, Lyle, are you single at all?

Lyle: No, I’ve been married for 8 years. 

Delores: Oh good. It’s time for you to fool around.

[Phil hands Delores a glass of champagne.] 

Delores: Thank you, Phil.

Phil [shrugs and smirks at Lyle]: Oh, Delores.

After the toast (“To innocence revealed. To death denied. To the triumph of truth over appearance” — again, a vague, self-congratulatory toast ostensibly to the Black man who wasn’t there), we return to Delores’s conversation with the lawyer Lyle.

Delores: What are you doing after the party?

Lyle: What am I doing after the party? I have a very important appointment. I’m afraid, in fact, that I have to leave now.

This is the last time we see Delores onscreen, and her part of this scene lasts less than 30 seconds. It’s just a throwaway aside during the party scene. So why is this scene in here? They’re not bothering to celebrate Delores’s contributions to cracking the case. Rather, AGAIN, Delores is portrayed as man-crazy, and determined to go after married men. And she is now openly encouraging an affair (“It’s time for you to fool around” followed by “What are you doing after the party?“). And again, the man in her sights is shown to be visibly shaken at her attentions — even showing disgust? — and Phil is still hanging around long enough to “jokingly” warn other White men about Delores.

I’m honestly so angry at this script and how it has written Delores’s character. I have no idea if Delores is a character in the source novel; please leave a comment if you have read the book. Sure, it’s nice to see a newspaper archivist out of the archives and enjoying her personal life. Delores, at least, is confident in being herself. But then we constantly witness how men react negatively or jokingly around her, again like they’re not taking her seriously. They do not take her seriously as a woman. These men are laughing at her, and by proxy, it feels like the movie is inviting the viewers to laugh at her — to laugh at, again, the ONLY LATINX PERSON in a film set in and around Miami and southern Florida. Given how racist this movie is with other BIPOC characters, I don’t think this is a coincidence.

In essence, Delores “Keeper of the archives, news trivia expert, buried three husbands” Rodriguez serves as the film’s running gag. It’s such a condescendingly written character, and it feels more negative every time I think about it. And I do not pin the blame on Liz Torres. She seems to be making the best of a bad situation and having fun in the role — she is an Emmy-nominated comedian — but I feel uneasy being encouraged and manipulated to laugh AT her, not WITH her. Liz Torres deserved better than this tone-deaf script. Real-life newspaper archivists deserved better. We all deserved better.

My own self re-examination

This post was hard to write. Like I mentioned above, the more I sat down to write about this movie, the more frustrated and angry I got, and the harder it got to try and articulate WHY I was angry. And I’m going to be honest, part of the reason is because I was angry at myself. Because when I first analyzed this movie — maybe 20 years ago? — this is the way I summarized it:

Law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) investigates the case of a young man (Blair Underwood) on death row in a Florida prison. A newspaper archivist, Delores, helps him find information for his research; she is also known as a flirt.

Tone deaf. So innocuous-sounding (“she is also known as a flirt“), but that description papers over the harm of how this character is written. I also didn’t mention race at all in this description. I also originally stated that this character fulfills the Information Provider and the Naughty Librarian character types. After having revisited this film, I stand by the Information Provider role. But now I realize that, as written, this character was also meant to fulfill a Comic Relief role. We are being manipulated to laugh at her. It’s just not ok.

I know I didn’t like this movie when I first watched it — and this movie was not a commercial success! — but I didn’t realize back then the extent of how problematically racist and stereotypical this movie was. I didn’t call it out then, because I hadn’t taken the time to reflect. But this month IS a time and opportunity to reflect, and I’m calling it out now.

Additional perspectives

So you’ve read how negatively I reacted to Just Cause. How did other critics react?

Here are excerpts from a contemporary review by movie critic Desson Howe in The Washington Post:

Connery is touched by Dee’s devotion, as well as the revelation that Underwood went to Cornell. (What would he have done if Underwood hadn’t gone to Cornell?) […]

Of course you want Connery to rain justice on those small-minded rednecks (no matter what color they are) and save Underwood from the chair. Unfortunately, this desire for retribution is dangled like a moral carrot before the audience. […]

So it’s brutal, horribly manipulative, and we’ve seen this stuff before in better pictures.”

Desson Howe, “‘Just Cause’ (R).” The Washington Post, 17 Feb. 1995

I’ve linked to the following review a few times already in this post, and it’s well worth a read.

To clarify; Armstrong is a man who dedicates his life fighting for justice for black people he thinks are wrongfully imprisoned. So the only conclusion one can draw from this instance is that his entire premise is a fallacy. Connery’s only potential arc is to become a racist. All black people in jail should be there, according to Just Cause. […]

Most of the conversation was focused on plot twists and lines like Connery’s, “If that’s a confession, then my a** is a banjo!” Not on the fact that it was promoting an agenda with harmful consequences on an entire community. However, this film speaks to the decade and it is something we can learn from. Just Cause got a pass at the time because we didn’t see a very obvious problem that’s apparent today.

Kenneth Hedges, “Racial Inequalities of the 90s Brought to Your Screen: Review of Film ‘Just Cause’,” ArtsHelp, June 2021

My husband’s summation was similar:

The moral of the story seems to be that even an innocent Black man is guilty.

Continuing the conversation

Let’s wrap this one up!

Did you ever catch Just Cause back when it was released in the mid-1990s? Have you watched it since? Is it as problematic as you remember? Did you recall Delores’s character as a reel archivist? Please leave a comment and share.

Sources used

First impressions: Wong’s cameos in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (2021)

“Wong! I always bet on Asian.”

This is another post in my “first impressions” series, which focus on current films that I have watched in theaters that include reel librarians and/or scenes in a library or archives. It’s been more than two years since I’ve written a “first impressions” post — the most recent one before this was in June 2019, for ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019) and its memorable fight scene in the NYPL‘ — because of, you know, the ongoing COVID pandemic. (Please get vaccinated if you can!) I am still not comfortable going inside a movie theater for 2+ hours to watch a movie with other people, but luckily, we have a drive-in theater nearby, the Rodeo Drive-in. I was sooooo happy they were showing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) on opening weekend, because (a) I really wanted to see the movie sooner rather than later, (b) I want to support a Marvel movie with a primarily Asian cast, hopefully the first of many, (c) I knew that one of my fave reel librarian characters, Wong, would be making a cameo, which I wrote about earlier this summer here, and therefore, (d) I wanted to write up a “first impressions” post for you all.

Please note: My “first impressions” posts are necessarily less detailed, as I don’t have the luxury of pausing the movie, taking notes, and rewatching scenes. I do, however, take notes as soon as I can after watching the film.

This also marks the fifth (!) time I’ve analyzed a reel librarian, library, or archives scene in a Marvel movie, three of which were “first impressions” posts. These past posts include: 

Below again is the full trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and you can see a glimpse of Wong battling Abomination in a cage fight at 1:51 minutes into the trailer below:

Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer” by
Marvel Entertainment
, Standard YouTube License

First impressions of the movie overall

I’m sooooo happy that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a certified hit already after smashing Labor Day box office records — and during an ongoing pandemic! It deserves all its accolades and then some. Everything worked in this movie, as it had great balance with drama, action, humor, casting, direction, and special effects. Tony Leung’s performance was particularly epic and grounded this larger-than-life movie in real-world heartbreak.

This tweet really sums up my feelings about the movie, including the final bullet point:

As a White person, I know that I cannot fully comprehend what this movie — and its vision and execution of Asian excellence on and behind the screen — must mean for Asian viewers all over the world. But I do know how much representation and visibility matter, and I know this movie matters. As Vox reporter Alex Abad-Santos stated in a review about the movie, “It’s fantastic at touching upon the Asian American experience, and it’s so buoyant in how it celebrates Asian American culture. I, like [lead star Simu] Liu, would love if we could change the world and smash ceilings and persevere against the nasty stuff — racism, prejudice, hopelessness — that keeps us pinned down. If only it were as simple as buying a movie ticket.

My husband woke me up on Saturday morning with the news that Wong was trending on Twitter… because reel librarian Wong made not one, not two, but THREE cameos – !!! – in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Plus, we already know that Wong makes a cameo in the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home, and of course, he will return in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.) It is quickly becoming the Wong Multiverse, and I’m not the only one who is excited about that!

Also, this realization warmed my librarian heart: ❤

Okay, so let’s get into each Wong cameo. And I cannot fully discuss Wong’s cameos without getting into major spoilers, so you are heretofore warned. If you haven’t already seen this movie, then go and watch it!

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

*MAJOR SPOILERS ALERT*

We good? Let’s go! And by the way, all the movie quotes below are to the best of my recollection. If I need to correct anything, please leave a comment and let me know.

Wong cameo #1

Wong’s first cameo comes in at about 30 minutes into the film, when Shang-Chi and Katy travel to an underground fight ring in Macau, which they later learn is run by Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing (played by Meng’ er Zhang), who is a total badass. They’re led through the club by Jon Jon (played by Ronny Chieng), who takes them to the main cage fight, where Wong is battling Abomination. Abomination lands a punch on Wong, who shouts, “That hurt! Want me to show you how it feels?” Wong then manifests a couple of sling ring circles so that the Abomination punches himself out!

Shang-Chi Sees Wong and Abomination Fighting! Scene – SHANG-CHI (2021)” video, uploaded by KinoCheck International, Standard YouTube License

My favorite part of this scene? The reaction to Wong winning! The crowd erupts and chants Wong’s name. And Jon Jon shouts out the best line in the movie:

Wong! I always bet on Asian.

My second favorite part of this scene? That Wong thinks his way to a victory in the cage fight. Reel librarian role model. 😀

After the fight, we see Wong offering the Abomination some cream to help him heal. Wong then says something like, “Maybe you’ll start controlling your punches, like we talked about?” before they step through another sling ring circle.

My husband and I had slightly different takes on this scene. To me, it seemed like Wong was more like a mentor and helping to train Abomination (perhaps helping him to re-enter the MCU, as Abomination is most likely set to return in the upcoming She-Hulk TV series?). My husband focused more on the fact that the fight was staged, and wondering why trustworthy Wong was willing to participate in a rigged fight. Perhaps this is a Wong from another multiverse? Director Destin Daniel Cretton revealed in this interview that they had gone through many scenarios and pairings for this cameo, and that “we landed on a pairing [of Abomination and Wong] that felt really great, but it was also a pairing that made sense to what’s happening in the MCU around the time of our movie.”

This Screen Crush video also goes into some of the possibilities behind this cameo:

SHANG CHI: Wong and ABOMINATION Fight EXPLAINED” video by ScreenCrush, Standard YouTube License

Wong cameo #2

At the very end of the movie, Shang-Chi and Katy are sharing their adventures with a couple of their friends at a bar, and they see a sling ring circle appear behind their friends. Wong emerges, and we can see rows of books behind him. He’s back in a library!

And we are are ALL Shang-Chi in this exchange:

Wong [calling out]: Shang-Chi?

Shang-Chi: [raises his hand]

Wong: Shang-Chi? I’m Wong.

Shang-Chi: Yes, I know. I’m a big fan.

Wong then asks Shang-Chi if he has the ten rings, and that they have work to do. He also invites Katy along. And then we are blessed with another meme-worthy bit from actor Benedict Wong as he downs the friend’s drink and pulls this face:

Comic gold! Benedict Wong really has perfected the balance of the serious and humorous facets of Wong’s character.

In a red-carpet interview at one of the movie’s world premieres, Benedict Wong shared that he thinks Wong will be getting out of the library more in upcoming films. You can see the exchange at 1:18 minutes into the video below:

Benedict Wong on Leaving the Library | Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi Red Carpet LIVE” video by Marvel Entertainment, Standard YouTube License

But my favorite part of these this second cameo — plus the final cameo, which we’ll get to next! — is that Wong is back IN the library! It’s unclear whether he’s in a library at the New York sanctum or back in the main library at Kamar-Taj. My bet is on Kamar-Taj, based on the conversation in Wong’s third and final cameo.

Wong’s cameo #3

As the film finished, my husband remarked that this movie had focused on the legend of the ten rings — specifically, the legends stemming from Wenwu’s thousand-plus reign with the rings — but not the origin of the rings.

Enter Wong’s final cameo that slides in during the credits, in which Wong has clearly been wondering the same thing. Katy and Shang-Chi have joined Wong in the library — again, my bet is that he’s back in the Kamar-Taj library, where Wong is the master librarian — where Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner (just Banner as himself, not as Professor Hulk) have also joined in via hologram Zoom.

This line about the ten rings from Wong made the librarian side of me squeal in delight:

They don’t match any artifact from our codex.

Wong has been researching the ten rings! As Wong is the expert on the Infinity Stones, as demonstrated in a brief but pivotal scene in Avengers: Infinity War, it makes sense that he would be researching the ten rings, as well. And just the fact that the word “codex” is mentioned in a Marvel movie… yes, I am geeking out over that! (In historical contexts, a “codex” refers to a bound collection of handwritten sheets of paper, essentially an ancient manuscript and precursor to modern books. In more modern library science contexts, a “codex” is also used to mean an official list of names, ingredients, definitions, or artifacts, etc., kind of similar to an index. But a codex is complete unto itself, while an index usually accompanies a resource.) Wong could be using either one — or both! — meanings of the word “codex” in this scene.

Also, I loved that Wong is in top reel librarian mode in this scene. He’s doing what librarians do best: knowing who to ask for help! There’s a saying in the library world, that we librarians do not need to know everything ourselves, we just need to be able to find out who does. 😉 So that’s what Wong is demonstrating, that he is researching the ten rings, but he is also reaching out to others for help, such as Captain Marvel (for her expertise and experience in intergalatic technology) and Bruce Banner (for his scientific knowledge).

Wong also says to Shang-Chi that “every time you used the rings, we could feel it in Kamar-Taj.” This line is VERY revealing. For example, it reveals that:

  • the sorcerers could NOT feel the rings for the thousand-plus years that Wenwu controlled the rings, meaning that Wenwu was also accessing only a portion of the rings’ power
  • that Shang-Chi wields the true, full power of the rings, confirming what we saw visually when the rings’ aura turned from blue to a golden hue in Shang-Chi’s hands during the fight with his father
  • probably other beings or dimensions felt the rings, too, when Shang-Chi used them (ruh roh)
  • this is NOT the last we shall see of the rings or or Shang-Chi… perhaps we’ll even get a Shang-Chi and the Origin of the Ten Rings movie??

And finally, more comic gold, as Wong then joins Shang-Chi and Katy in singing karaoke! EPIC. 😀 😀 😀

You can see more of this mid-credits scene and theories in this Screen Crush video:

SHANG CHI POST CREDITS SCENE EXPLAINED” video by ScreenCrush, Standard YouTube License

Final thoughts and musings

  • I was surprised — pleasantly so! — that Wong was as impactful a character in this movie as he was, and also what a vital character he is proving to be in the MCU, and potentially in the multiverse. Wong helps set up the continuation of Shang-Chi as a character (and the ten rings as important artifacts), so he is a crucial part of this movie. Wong’s not just a cameo.
  • Wong had to have been aware that Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing, was the one running the cage fight club. But he didn’t know who her brother, Shang-Chi, was? There’s something fishy about that, especially as you would think Wong would be sure to research who owned the club, plus their family connections. Hmmm….
  • Wong is very well-connected and knows EVERYBODY, based off his holographic Zoom session with Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner. In my experience, this is also pretty true-to-life to librarians, at least for academic librarians. On a college or university campus, librarians tend to work with a wide range of faculty, students, and staff across various departments and program areas, so we tend to have a lot of connections and personal relationships across campus. It makes sense to me that Wong would also have a lot of connections across the MCU.
  • Wong is well-known AND well-loved, judging by the crowd chanting his name after his cage fight with Abomination (and the fact that Wong was trending on Twitter the day after the movie’s premiere!)
  • In my post exploring perspectives about Wong’s reel librarian character, I noted the criticism about how Wong’s character lacks agency or a central, in-depth narrative. In that post, I wondered “Will Wong have more of an independent identity and narrative” in upcoming films? And this film seems to be answering that question with a resounding YES! 😀
  • And whatever Dr. Strange is up to, Wong is the glue, and the one doing the work out there. Wong is not just Dr. Strange’s sidekick; rather, he is his colleague and demands recognition and respect on his own terms. (Also see my post about Avengers: Endgame and how Wong is the one who actually assembled the Avengers.)
  • Wong serves as both an Information Provider and Comic Relief character types in his cameos in this movie.

Continuing the conversation

So those are my thoughts and first impressions after watching — and cheeringfor ! — Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. What are your thoughts? Did you like the movie? What do you think Wong’s up to with Abomination? Please leave a comment and share!

Also, can’t get enough of Wong? Here are additional posts I’ve written about reel librarian Wong:

Sources used

Librarians make their mark in ‘Prick Up Your Ears’ (1987)

“I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books.”

During the month of June, LGBTQ+ Pride Month celebrations take place in the United States and worldwide, commemorating the June 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan, New York, a turning point in gay rights and liberation movements. As the U.S. Proclamation on LGBTQ+ Pride Month 2021 states:

Pride is a time to recall the trials the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ+) community has endured and to rejoice in the triumphs of trailblazing individuals who have bravely fought — and continue to fight — for full equality.  Pride is both a jubilant communal celebration of visibility and a personal celebration of self-worth and dignity.

A Proclamation on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, 2021,” The White House, 1 June 2021

It can be a tricky thing to recognize the dangerous and often-deadly discrimination that the LGBTQ+ community has endured — and continue to endure — at the same time that you are celebrating the wide-ranging contributions and impact of the LGBTQ+ community. This means holding space for two extremes together at the same time, and hopefully, this is a time of deep reflection and grace for us all, including allies. I feel that the movie Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which is based on the real-life events of British playwright Joe Orton (born John Orton, 1933-1967), exemplifies this dynamic quite well.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) Trailer | Stephen Frears” video uploaded by Ryan Saunders, Standard YouTube License

Directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen), Prick Up Your Ears stars Gary Oldman as Orton; Alfred Molina as Orton’s mentor, collaborator, and lover Kenneth Halliwell; and Vanessa Redgrave as Orton’s literary agent, Peggy Ramsay. The movie, written by Alan Bennett, was adapted from the 1978 biography of the same title by John Lahr, and Wallace Shawn plays Lahr in this film adaptation.

Joe Orton’s plays (most notably, Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot) and writing style continue to be highly influential (e.g. the term “Ortonesque” is used to describe the witty and dark comedic style he specialized in), even though his public career lasted only a few short years, from 1964 to 1967. Orton’s and Halliwell’s 15-year relationship came to a violent end in August 1967, when Halliwell murdered Orton and then killed himself. It could be easy to dismiss the film as focusing too much on the sensational aspects of this true tale. The film trailer, embedded above, focuses primarily on the murder/suicide, and the film itself begins with Halliwell covered in blood after murdering Orton and ends with Orton’s funeral. But in-between, we follow along with the flashbacks and flash-forwards as Lahr researches Orton and reads his diaries and pieces together Orton’s and Halliwell’s life together. (You really cannot separate the two men, in life or in death.) We viewers identify with Lahr in his research quest, as we want to know more about Orton’s art and about Halliwell’s motivations, and how and why their relationship and collaborations soured and turned deadly. It’s not a straightforward film, but Frears does an excellent job of highlighting recurring themes and lines that call back to earlier scenes or other characters.

A few years ago, The Guardian highlighted Lahr’s biography of Orton as a “book to give you hope.”

“John Lahr’s 1978 biography of the playwright Joe Orton may seem an unlikely choice for a book to give you hope. After all, Orton’s success was not only a long time coming (a decade of abject failure was crowned by a six-month spell in prison for defacing library books), but when it did finally arrive in 1964 (with the West End production of Entertaining Mr Sloane) it lasted only until 9 August 1967. It was brought to a bloody and premature end by his long-term lover, Kenneth Halliwell, who bludgeoned Orton to death with a hammer before taking his own life. Orton was only 34 years old. Yet, it is these early years of struggle and anonymity that make Orton’s life story such a fascinating and, yes, inspirational read.

… [T]he ending is desperately sad. But what remains is the work. And ultimately, Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of Orton’s work and a brilliantly illuminating account of the writing life. And even when that life is cut horribly short, it still remains a testament to the enduring power of hope, and of triumph over adversity.”

W.B. Gooderham, “Books to Give You Hope: Prick Up Your Ears by John Lahr,” The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2016

For me, this review captures the juxtaposition of recognizing the sadness of Orton’s shortened life as well as celebrating the hope and creativity of his artistry. And this dichotomy is reflected in Frears’s cinematic adaptation.

The library scenes and why they matter

So where does the library come into it? Although the main library scene and scenes with the librarians last less than 5 minutes total, this scene in the movie — and in real life — changed the course of Orton’s and Halliwell’s lives. It seems appropriate then that the library scenes occurs almost exactly halfway through the movie.

Here’s the general background: Around 1959, while collaborating on novels and getting rejected from publishers, Orton and Halliwell started defacing covers of library books and typing naughty passages into them. In the movie, two librarians at the Islington public library finally set a trap for them and turned them into the police. In 1962, the two men were sentenced to 6 months in prison and were sent to different facilities. While in prison, Orton started writing his own work and flourished, while Halliwell became depressed and attempted suicide.

The library book scenes are foreshadowed a bit earlier in the film, when at 44 minutes, Halliwell and Orton are collaborating on a book. While Kenneth types on the typewriter, Joe is cutting up a library book.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Kenneth: That’s a library book. You should respect books.

Joe: I respect them more than you. You just take them for granted.

This short scene accomplishes a lot with a little. They are supposedly collaborating, but Joe seems a bit bored and stifled with his side of the collaboration. This foreshadows his breaking free and writing his own works later. Their dialog also reinforces their class differences, with working-class Joe calling out Kenneth and his upper-class upbringing and privilege. It also, as my writer husband pointed out, places the act of defacing the library books in the context of writing and as a creative act and form of expression. They are writing and creating in different ways in this scene, and again, it foreshadows how they will collaborate on the library books.

Next, at 45 1/2 minutes into the film, Halliwell and Orton are talking about that collaborative novel, titled Boy Hairdresser, to a publisher. When it’s clear that the publisher has no intention of publishing their work, Orton roams around the office and steals a book from the publisher’s shelves, The Art of Culture. Although it isn’t explicitly shown in the movie, Orton revealed in later interviews that he used to steal library books in order to deface them and then smuggle them back into the library to shock patrons who came across the altered works.

So all these short, seemingly throwaway scenes do provide clues; nothing is wasted in this movie.

At almost 53 minutes into the film, Kenneth is working on the collage on the walls, while Joe is reading on the bed. Then, as Kenneth prepares lunch, Joe roams around their bedroom and places library books along the back of their desk.

Joe: I can’t see how we’re ever going to make our mark… defacing library books. 

Making his mark in defacing library books

Next stop? The public library!

The two men check out books at the front library counter, and a woman librarian in grey suit stamps their books. We can also spy a younger White woman walk past behind the desk, and she appears to be filing cards. In the background, we can see a “Fiction” label along the back bookshelves, and the library seems filled with patrons. Halliwell and Orton leave the library, and the words on the exit door — “Way Out” in big letters printed on both sides of the glass door — feature prominently in this scene. That doesn’t feel like an accident. (In fact, the phrase “coming out” was in use during the mid-20th century to describe gay identity and sense of community, but the phrase was undergoing a change in usage during this time period, explained here.)

Two librarians — the middle-aged White woman who stamped their books, Miss Battersby (Selina Cadell), and a White middle-aged man, Mr. Cunliffe (Charles McKeown) — follow them out and watch them leave.

Their brief conversation reveals their discrimination and homophobia toward the pair and the gay community at large, and Mr. Cunliffe rattles off several homophobic slurs without batting an eye.

Mr. Cunliffe: You didn’t tell me one of them was a nancy.

Miss Battersby: I’m sorry, Mr. Cunliffe?

Mr. Cunliffe: The bald one, Miss Battersby. A homosexual. A shirt lifter.

Miss Battersby: In Islington?

Mr. Cunliffe: Haven’t you noticed? Large areas of the borough are being restored and painted Thames green. [He grabs their library card from Miss Battersby] Noel Road. This calls for a little detective work, Miss Battersby.

And their detective work involves props! Miss Battersby smokes a cigarette, and Mr. Cunliffe brandishes a magnifying glass.

The librarians then set up a trap for Halliwell and Orton. Mr. Cunliffe finds an abandoned car on the road, writes down the license plate, and then dictates a letter to Miss Battersby. They appear to be in a back office in the library, as the walls are lined with bookshelves and filled with books and magazines, and the desk includes a pile of library stamps, and a rolling cart is visible beside the desk.

Librarians type up a letter

Mr. Cunliffe: Registration: K-Y-R-4-5-0. The above-mentioned vehicle appears to be derelict and abandoned in Noel Road, and I have been given to understand you are the owner thereof. 

We then see Kenneth reading aloud the rest of the letter, and he then dictates a response to Joe, although their letter is a more collaborative process than the librarians’ letter.

Kenneth: “But before enforcing remedies, I give you the opportunity to remove the vehicle from the highway.” The little prick. [pauses] Unzip our trusty Remington, John. We will piss on this person from a great height. “Dear sir, thank you for your dreary little letter.

Joe: ‘Dismal’ is better.

Kenneth: Dismal, then. I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information. 

Joe: ‘Furnished’ is better than ‘provided.’ It’s more municipal in tone. 

Cue more librarian detective work!

Mr. Cunliffe: You will note the typing, Miss Battersby, is the same. Our book jacket… their letter. Got you, my beauties.

We then cut to the courtroom, where we see a magistrate being handed a mystery novel, Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. We see a stack of books on the table, which are recognizable as some of the ones we saw earlier on Joe’s desk. This scene is devastatingly efficient, as the camera pans over the courtroom, where we spy the librarians, who have come to see the results of their detective work!

Magistrate: This is the novel Clouds of Witness by the noted authoress Dorothy L. Sayers. Could you read what the accused have written on the flap of the jacket?

Policeman: “… This is one of the most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers. Read it behind closed doors and have a good shit while you’re reading it.”

Magistrate: The probation officer has suggested that you are both frustrated authors. Well, if you’re so clever at making fun of what more talented people have written, you should have a shot at writing books yourselves. You won’t find that such a pushover. Sheer malice and destruction, the pair of you. I sentence you both to six months. 

Joe [to Kenneth]: Fucking A. 

Kenneth [to Joe]: It was your idea. 

The librarians vs. the lovers

As I mentioned before, this entire scene in the library and with the librarians lasts less than 5 minutes, but it is crucial to the rest of the narrative. I also found it interesting to note how many times the director chose to mirror the pair of librarians with the pair of lovers, Orton and Halliwell.

Here is a compare-and-contrast of how Orton and Halliwell exit the library and the librarians re-enter the library. The librarians serve as gatekeepers — literally as well as visually — in this scene.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

Here we can compare-and-contrast the profiles of the librarians as they watch in judgment as Orton and Halliwell leave the library, and the profiles of Joe and Kenneth as they receive the magistrate’s prison judgment.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The librarians sit in court in front of a policeman, while Orton and Halliwell sit in court in front of a member of the public. Again, no detail is wasted in this film. The librarians side with order (more visual gatekeeping), while the creative lovers side with the public.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

And below we can compare the mirroring of dictating the library letter and its response. Both of the sets are filled with books, but one is a public library while the other is a private library. Also, notice how the librarians are always dressed in the same clothing, the same buttoned-up grey suits? Kenneth and Joe are also dressed in neutrals, grey and tan, but are dressed much more casually and less buttoned-down.

Click the bar in the middle to compare and contrast the two images

The library scene ends at 58 minutes into the film, and we hear Vanessa Redgrave’s voiceover as she efficiently sums up the effect of their prison sentence: “Prison worked wonders for Joe.”

Librarian roles

As I’ve mentioned, the two main librarians we see — Mr. Cunliffe and Miss Battersby — are visually seen as gatekeepers throughout their scenes. Their grey suits come off as much of a uniform as the uniforms that the police officers wear. The librarians even attend court to witness the prison sentencing! Above and beyond their librarian duties, surely. 😦 Needless to say, these reel librarians are NOT role models; rather, they demonstrate the destructive effects of homophobia and anti-LGBTQ+ actions.

In that way, Miss Battersby serves the role of an Information Provider, as she is providing information to the audience and reflecting society’s limited views and judgment of the LGBTQ+ community. (See also my post about the law librarian failure in Philadelphia). The third librarian, the younger White woman, also serves as an Information Provider, but only in the sense of establishing the library setting.

I have categorized the role of Mr. Cunliffe, who appears to be the senior librarian in their scenes, as an Anti-Social Librarian. He wears conservative clothing, hoards knowledge, dislikes the public (particularly the LGBTQ+ members of the public), and exhibits elitism in his view of the library and society in general. He goes beyond his librarian duties and engages in detective work — outside the library and off hours, I’m sure — in order to personally trap library patrons. He also relishes in his handiwork (“Got you, my beauties!“). Honestly, it comes off as the librarian’s personal vendetta.

And these two reel librarians made my Hall of Shame list! On that page, I wrote that:

This Class III film made me sit up and yell at the screen! It includes the completely unethical behavior of two librarians, who set a trap — using information from circulation records, no less! — to turn two frustrated writers into the police. Yes, the writers had typed obscene passages onto book covers, but that does not justify a mean-spirited librarian’s actions.

Reel life vs. real life

As I mentioned above, the film shows the librarians — and particularly Mr. Cunliffe — as the ones who personally trap Orton and Halliwell. I’m sure the screenwriter did this to condense characters and tell the story more efficiently — and of course, isn’t it shocking what an overzealous librarian would do?! Most unexpected. And it is unexpected, because the real-life librarians did not actually go as far as their onscreen counterparts did. But not for lack of trying!

The Joe Orton Online site states that Orton and Halliwell “had been suspected for some time and extra [library] staff had been drafted to catch the culprits, but with no success. They were eventually caught by the careful detective work of Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council. A letter was sent to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. Their typed reply matched typeface irregularities in the defaced books and the men were caught.” And an article in The Guardian reveals more details, that “When the library authorities cottoned on to what was happening, they brought in undercover staff from other libraries to try to catch whomever was doing it, and when that failed, Porrett had the idea of writing to his number one suspects, Halliwell and Orton.”

The Movie Locations site reveals that the library scenes were not filmed in the Islington public library. Instead, the library scenes were filmed at Chelsea Library in Chelsea Old Town Hall, located about 6 miles southwest of Islington Central Library.

It does appear the the library books highlighted in the film were among the ones that Orton and Halliwell defaced in real life. The British Library site even highlights “The Joe Orton Collection” of book covers on their site, stating that, “Since 2003, the book covers have been preserved by the Islington Local History Centre where they form the Joe Orton Collection. After the trial, the surviving covers were kept within Islington Public Library Service by the special collections librarian. Today, this totals 41 examples. An additional 31 doctored books are believed to be lost, stolen or destroyed.

You can also view a more extensive gallery of the book covers on the Joe Orton Online site. And in 2011, the Islington Local History Centre displayed their collection of book covers because of “international interest” and that the book covers “shined a light on two fascinating lives and characters” (Brown).

Why library books?

The movie doesn’t really delve deep into the reasons Orton and Halliwell defaced the library books — beyond the line that Joe says about “mak[ing] our mark” — but Orton did address this in an April 1967 television interview with Eamon Andrews:

“Joe Orton Television Interview 1967” video, uploaded by THEORTONCOLLECTIVE, Standard YouTube License

Orton does not mention Halliwell at all during this interview and states that his motive was “just a joke.” But then he reveals a little more about his personal feelings about the library and its collections:

Orton: Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway. I mean, I thought they spent far too much public money on rubbish. I mean, I didn’t like the books. I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

Andrews: So this was a kind of protest of the kinds of books in the library?

Orton: Oh, yes, it really was.

Andrews: Do you have any regrets now for having done this?

Orton: No regrets at all. No, I had a marvelous time in prison. It just meant that instead of annoying a few old ladies, you see, that opened the book, I now annoy hundreds of old ladies by writing plays.

The Joe Orton Online site muses that “these acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.”

In a 30th anniversary retrospective interview about the film, Alfred Molina (who portrayed Halliwell) reflected that, “Living in that small room, living in a sense completely isolated from the world, writing and defacing those books, and decorating their home, it was probably like a little cocoon where they felt safe. With Joe’s success, the world broke into that room and that shattered everything.”

I also appreciated blogger and historian John Levin’s thoughts about how these book covers should be viewed today:

“It is worth considering these works without hindsight and in their own moment. Had Orton not been successful, what would have been made of these works? Would they have been less interesting, less intelligent, the work of a vandal rather than a critic?

I think not. Even if Orton hadn’t been successful – and such a way of framing it underplays the equal contribution of the unrecognized Halliwell – these collages would still embody a contempt for boredom, a queer ‘in your face’ aesthetic, and a provocation outside the art gallery, executed with quite some skill. And as at the time, they were a couple of unknown, pre-1967 gays, constrained by and pushing against the mores and the policing of the time, it is in that light they should be appreciated.”

John Levin, “Gorilla in the Roses: The Collages of Halliwell and Orton,” Anterotesis, 21 Feb. 2012

And on a final note, Orton also included cheeky references to libraries and librarians in his play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, which I highlighted in my analysis of the 1970 film adaptation of his play.

What are your thoughts on Prick Up Your Ears? Have you seen the 1987 movie, or read Lahr’s biography? Have you read any of Orton’s plays? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

‘Let Them All Talk’ about cruise ship libraries and librarians

Let them all talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

I watched the movie Let Them All Talk (2020) this past December, when it was released on the streaming platform HBO Max. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film stars Meryl Streep as celebrated writer Alice Hughes; Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen as Alice’s university friends Susan and Roberta; Lucas Hedges as Alice’s nephew Tyler, and Gemma Chan as Alice’s new literary agent Karen. The bulk of the movie happens on a cruise ship — shot on location on the Queen Mary 2 — and there are more shenanigans to the plot than I have head space to tackle here, so here is a trailer that sums up the plot:

I know that Soderbergh likes to experiment with moviemaking techniques, but I didn’t realize until after I watched the film that the dialog was mostly improvised by the actors, which explains a LOT about the film’s odd pacing and how circular and repetitive the dialog felt. (Out of this celebrated cast, I think Gemma Chan and Dianne Wiest best handled that improvisational style.)

I also didn’t expect there to be a library scene in the movie! And OF COURSE when a library appears in a movie, I have to pause so I can take notes in the moment. Libraries and librarians really do pop up in all sorts of movies at the most unexpected moments.

Library scene #1: Introduction to the cruise ship library

At 34 minutes into this movie, Alice visits the cruise ship’s library. I chuckled that she went to check out which of her books were in the library’s collection. That is such a writer thing to do! (I should know. I’m married to one.) She also checks out what books the library has of another writer on the same voyage, Kelvin Kranz, who writes popular thrillers. And there is an entire row of Kranz’s books, which irks Alice, who is a writer who writes “serious” fiction — and who takes herself very seriously, indeed.

But of course, I was most interested in this AMAZING library, with its glossy wood bookshelves and inset lighting. It’s so sparkly, and it displays the books like jewels.

As you can see in the screenshots below, when Alice walks into the library, you can see a younger White woman, with dark hair pulled back and dressed in a uniform, standing behind a counter and handing books to another woman, a guest in a floral dress. And as the camera pans down the row of books as Alice looks for her own books, you can spy call number ranges (or thematic/genre indicators?) at the end caps of the rows.

Behind Alice, a White woman hands books to guests at the counter in Let Them All Talk (2020)
Call number signs are visible at the ends of the book rows

And as Anna walks around another row of books, we see another cruise ship library worker, this time a younger Asian woman, again wearing a cruise ship uniform. She is wearing glasses and appears to be shelving books. Also, in the background along the wall, you can just spy a small gold sign that reads “Library.” (And you know I zoomed in on that sign to double-check, right? OF COURSE I did. 😉 )

You can spy the small gold “Library” sign along the back wall, in the center of this screenshot
A library worker shelves books in the cruise ship library

This scene lasts only a couple of minutes. I reviewed the cast list, and there are no credits for these cruise ship library workers. We know that the movie was filmed on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship, so were these two women — the White woman at the counter and the Asian woman shelving books — actual workers in this cruise ship library? At this point, my thoughts are leaning toward YES. (We will return to this question.)

Library scene #2: More views of the cruise ship library

At 51 minutes in, we revisit the cruise ship library, this time with literary agent Karen, who also tracks Alice Hughes’s books in the library collection! She takes down a copy of Hughes’s most famous book, You Always/You Never (which Karen wants Alice to write a sequel to), and she sits down in a comfy reading chair to (re)read it. Along the way, we get treated to more views of the library’s amenities, including the comfy seating area and several desks and tables with library computers or OPACs on them.

Karen looks for Alice Hughes’ works in the cruise ship library, too
Karen chats with Kelvin Kranz, the writer of popular thrillers

While Karen dives into the book, the writer Kelvin Kranz finds her, and it turns out Kelvin and Karen know each other quite well! The plot thickens… and I won’t spoil any more of the movie for you all. 😉

Library scene #3: Alice Hughes’s private library

The final library scene is right at the end of the film, practically the final shot. Alice’s nephew Tyler returns to his aunt’s home in New York, and we get a glimpse into her magical, old-fashioned library, with its mezzanine, fireplace, and rows and rows of books.

So we get TWO beautiful, gleaming, light-filled library spaces in this film — so delightfully unexpected!

Alice’s personal library

Will the real cruise ship library please stand up?

So let’s return to that research quest to find out if we are seeing the actual workers in this cruise ship library.

The first step for me was to verify that the library we see onscreen was actually the library from the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship. So I searched online for any photos, and voilà, it is indeed the same library, as evidenced by this extensive slideshow of the Queen Mary 2’s library on this Cruise Critic site. Also, on slide 19 in this photo slideshow, you can see a chart of the color-coded call number system they use. (And props to the propmaster, if you scroll up to the close-ups of the book props for Alice Hughes and Kelvin Kranz, it looks like they used the same, or similar, color-coded call number stickers!! Such good attention to detail warms this librarian’s heart! ❤ )

I also uncovered this article about the Queen Mary 2 library in the professional journal Libraries & Culture, and it actually describes details about the staffing and set-up of the library:

“The library is physically connected to the ship’s bookshop. The librarian is stationed at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop. There is usually at least one other individual who works at this service point; that person handles most of the bookshop sales but also helps with library duties.”

Richard D. Burbank, “The ‘Queen Mary 2’ Library” article published in Libraries & Culture, 2005, p. 547.

Y’all, I squealed with glee when I realized we actually see this description of the library staffing model in the film! The woman at the counter is most likely the main librarian described “at a service point that serves both the library and the bookshop,” which would also explain why that counter looked particularly busy. And the woman shelving books is likely the library assistant worker who “helps with library duties.” (But the two positions could be reversed.) There is no doubt in my mind now that we are seeing real-life cruise ship librarians in this movie!

Because the reel — and real-life! — librarians are seen onscreen for mere seconds and are there to help reinforce the library setting, they fulfill the role of Information Providers. Ultimately, the movie falls into the Class IV category, films with reel librarian cameos.

I also really enjoyed reading this article, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?,” published in The Washington Post in 2016, which was full of interesting tidbits. The Queen Mary 2 was ultimately rated the best ship library for traditionalists, as it has has the largest library at sea, with about 10,000 volumes! And I wholeheartedly agree with this summation:

“Staffed by full-time librarians, the collection holds a wide variety of materials, including bestsellers, classics and travel guides. Lush carpeting, leather sofas and armchairs, rich wood-and-glass shelves and semi-private Internet stations would be the envy of any public library.”

Carol Sottili, “Which Cruise Ship Library is Right for You?” published in The Washington Post, 11 June 2016

We got to see everything described in that article — the librarians, the collection with bestsellers and classics, the carpeting, the leather armchairs, the gleaming book shelves, AND the Internet stations — in the movie. Let Them All Talk, indeed.. about this awesome cruise ship library!

Have you watched this movie? Have you ever been on a cruise ship that had an awesome library? Please share your thoughts and comments on this post. 🙂

Additional cruise ship librarian & library posts

Can’t get enough of ship librarians and libraries? Check out these additional posts!

  • In this 2011 post, ‘Bon voyage’ to the ship’s librarian, I delve into Bon Voyage! (1962), a Disney comedy about an American family on a “dream” vacation to Europe. In one scene, the father (Fred MacMurray) goes to the ship’s library and is greeted enthusiastically by the Ship’s Librarian, played by James Millhollin.
  • In this 2014 post, A ‘Libeled Lady’ and a library, I set sail on an ocean liner with William Powell in the 1936 film Libeled Lady. Although we never see a librarian on board in the film, Powell rings the ship’s steward for books on angling.
  • In the 2018 round-up about Private eyes in reel librarian films, I highlight the 1934 film, The Captain Hates the Sea, in which an alcoholic newspaperman boards a ship, hoping for a restful cruise and the chance to quit drinking and begin writing a book. Also on board is a private detective hoping to nab a criminal with a fortune in stolen bonds — and a librarian on vacation! However, this reel librarian may be using this occupation as a cover for illicit activities…
  • In this 2019 post about the 1960s Miss Marple movies, featuring her trusty sidekick and village librarian, Mr. Stringer, we get to see Miss Marple (played by Margaret Rutherford) visit the ship’s library in Murder Ahoy! (1964). In the ship’s library, Miss Marple finds a copy of a book that serves as a vital clue that proves Miss Marple’s theory about a murder — and she later uses this same book to catch the killer in the final act!

Sources used

A closer look at the library scene in ‘Hidden Figures’ (2016)

Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

Four years ago (!), I wrote about my first impressions of the library scene in Hidden Figures, which I watched in theaters. (That feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it, actually going to movie theaters? #PandemicLife). That post has remained one of the most popular posts on this Reel Librarians blog, so it felt time to revisit the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures film and take a closer look at its library scene. March is also Women’s History Month, and it feels fitting to focus on a movie that champions Black American women in STEM, including:

  • Katherine G. Johnson, mathematician and one of the first Black women scientists at NASA (played by Taraji P. Henson)
  • Dorothy Vaughan, mathematician and computer programmer and first Black female supervisor at NASA’s West Area Computers division (played by Octavia Spencer, in an Oscar-nominated performance)
  • Mary Jackson, NASA’s first Black female engineer (played by Janelle Monáe)

As I said in my 2017 post:

These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.

A closer look at the public library scene

In that original first impressions post, I recalled the library scene clocking in about 2/3 of the way through the film. I can now say that my memory was totally off-base! The library scene begins at 49 1/2 minutes through this 126-minute film, which means this scene happens a little over 1/3 of the way through.

“Library Scene-Dorothy Vaughn Hidden Figures” video uploaded by Natalie Pedrianes, Standard YouTube License

But first, some context before we visit the library: Dorothy Vaughan has learned that NASA has installed an IBM electronic computer, and she realizes that this machine threatens to replace “human computers,” particularly the West Area Computer division of Black women computers she supervises. She realizes she needs to learn the language of this electronic computer. And where do you go for information? The public library, of course!

On their way to the library, Vaughan and her sons, Kenneth (Alkoya Brunson) and Leonard (Ashton Tyler), pass by an anti-segregation demonstration. We can hear calls for “Segregation must go,” and we see signs that read “Segregation hurts us all” and “The presence of segregation is the absence of democracy!” We also witness, along with the Vaughans, a couple of White policemen running to the scene of the protest. Vaughan says to her boys, “Don’t pay attention to all that. We’re not part of that trouble.

Protest scene in Hidden Figures (2016)

We then see the Vaughans walking up the side entrance to the public library, which I have to assume was the “Colored” entrance at that time. In the next frame, Vaughan is browsing through bookshelves as the two boys read to each other on the floor. (Props to the propmaster — I appreciated all the call number stickers on the books!)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

We then spy a reel librarian — a middle-aged White woman with shoulder-length, reddish hair, no glasses — peeking through the bookshelves. Her character is listed in the credits as White Librarian, played by Rhoda Griffis. What follows is a brief but devastating exchange (and one of the worst reference interviews I’ve ever seen onscreen).

White Librarian: We don’t want any trouble in here.

Dorothy Vaughan: I’m not here for any trouble, ma’am.

White Librarian: What are you here for?

Dorothy Vaughan: A book.

White Librarian: You have books in the colored section.

Dorothy Vaughan: It doesn’t have what I’m looking for.

White Librarian [shrugging]: That’s just the way it is.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

Side note: I noticed in the cast list on IMDb.com an uncredited stunt double for the White Librarian (Ruth Dalton). Why would this reel librarian character need a stunt double? Was this library scene originally going to be a bigger scene? Also, does anyone else notice the blurry figure in the background behind the White Librarian in the screenshot in the gallery above? Is that blurry figure in the background an uncredited library user in the “Colored” section of the library? Or a Black librarian? Was there originally going to be a “Black Librarian” character to contrast with the “White Librarian” character? It’s a detail in the background I had never noticed before. Am I overthinking it? What are your thoughts?

In the very next clip in this library scene, a White security guard (listed in the credits as “Library Security Guard,” played by Howie Johnson) escorts Dorothy Vaughan and her sons out of the front door of the library. We see a prominent sign on the front pillar that reads Hampton Public Library.

Library Security Guard [shoving the boys through the doors]: Go on now. You know better than this.

Vaughan: Get your hands off my boys! Don’t touch them. [Straightens up and adjusts her coat] You have a blessed day.

Dorothy Vaughan then walks past a White woman and her two boys. The two women exchange looks. Both have much in common in that moment — taking their two sons to the public library — and yet are worlds apart. There is so much said in that wordless glance between the two women.

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

The scene in the library itself lasts 30 seconds. But then we get to see the effects of that library scene, as Dorothy Vaughan and her boys ride the bus home, seated in the back.

Dorothy Vaughan: Separate and equal are two different things. Just ‘cause it’s the way, doesn’t make it right. Understand? […] You act right, you are right. That’s for certain. Understand?

She then takes a library book out of her handbag. We get a closeup of the cover, the word “Fortran” visible in large letters, and a smaller line of indistinguishable text above.

Kenneth Vaughan [in a shocked tone]: You took that book, Mama?

Dorothy Vaughan: Son, I pay taxes. And taxes pay for everything in that library. You can’t take something you already paid for.

She then starts reading the book, “Fortran is a new and exciting language used by programmers to communicate with computers. It is exciting, as it is the wave of the future.” (Also, did y’all know that the word “Fortran” is derived from the phrase “Formula Translation”?! #WordNerd)

Click on an image below to view in a larger size.

This scene on the bus lasts about a minute long.

Although Dorothy Vaughan was not interested in exposing her boys to “that trouble” at the rally, she does demonstrate to them the value of “good trouble” (RIP, John Lewis). And what are the effects of Dorothy Vaughan’s good trouble act of taking that Fortran book from the “Whites” section of the public library? She teaches herself the Fortran language, and she pays that knowledge forward when she teaches her staff. She not only saves her job; she also saves the jobs of many other Black women mathematicians and computer scientists at NASA.

A closer look at the library book

Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)
Closeup of the Fortran book in Hidden Figures (2016)

Here is the best close-up I could get of the book Dorothy Vaughan takes from the public library, a relatively slim volume with a cover of multi-colored stripes. Although the word “FORTRAN” is visible on the cover, there seems to be a blurrier line of text right above. Dorothy’s hand is obscuring most of the author’s name at the bottom of the book, but it looks like a shorter surname. Was this book a real book — or at least based on a real book? Y’all know I looked that up, right?! OF COURSE I DID. 😉 So here was my process:

  • The film is set in 1961. First, I needed to see if there were any books published about Fortran in 1961 (or a year or two earlier).
  • Next stop: WorldCat, a world catalog of library holdings. I did an Advanced Search, typing in the keyword “Fortran” in the Title field and limiting my results to books published from 1960 to 1961. Here’s a link to those initial search results.
  • The first result was a Fortran manual published by IBM in 1961. Useful info, but I doubted that any public library would be snapping up brand-new technical computer manuals. In fact, of the 9 libraries that still have a copy of this title (!), almost all are college or university libraries.
  • I scanned down the results, looking for anything that had a title that looked similar to the one on the book prop. Bingo! Result #7 was a book entitled Introduction to Fortran, by S. C. Plumb, first published in 1961. And it is STILL available in over 200 libraries! Looking back at the blurry title and the shorter-looking surname in that book closeup, I am absolutely convinced that this book prop is based on — or is a really good original copy of? — Plumb’s book. (I was mistaken — see the update below for details!)

What do y’all think? Do you think it’s the same book? Do y’all enjoy reading about the details of my WorldCat sleuthing? I’m a college librarian, so I feel compelled to make my research process transparent. 😉

UPDATE 7/2021:

Eagle-eyed reader R.D. Sylva spotted a later scene that showed the title of the book more clearly and left a comment letting me know that the title is actually Understanding Fortran. Thank you, R.D.!!!

I went back to review the film, and yes indeed, this scene comes at 58 minutes into the film. Dorothy Vaughan goes to the IBM room and sets down her Fortran book on the table beside the IBM Manual:

A closer look at the Fortran book cover, which reveals the title of it is Understanding Fortran
A closer look at the Fortran book cover, which reveals the title of it is Understanding Fortran

Going back to Worldcat, here is a link to the results that have the Understanding Fortran book title. The earliest edition seems to have been published in 1968, by Mary McCammon. The publication timing of that book still doesn’t quite fit in with the timeline for this film (it’s possible that there was an earlier edition published?, or perhaps the propmasters simply wanted a Fortran book written by a woman for this woman-centered film?). But I did find out that Mary McCammon’s book was highlighted as “among the most comprehensive” in this 1973 article about “Introductory FORTRAN Textbooks” in the Computers and the Humanities journal. Neat! The more you learn… 😉 thanks again for the comment and update, R.D. Sylva!

A closer look at the library’s filming location

I also wondered where this library scene was filmed. The “Hampton Public Library” sign was so prominent in the scene — was this a real library? Although the film is set in Virginia, I knew it was filmed mostly in Georgia. The IMDb.com’s Filming & Production page for this film states that the library scene (or at least, the exterior of the library) was filmed in Canton, Georgia.

I started by looking at public libraries or branches in Canton, to determine if any were named Hampton. No dice. Then I looked up the public libraries near where the NASA Langley Research Center is located, and bingo! Hampton, Virginia, is where that Center is located, and there is a Hampton Public Library, which began as the first free county library in Virginia in 1926, according to their library website. I also learned that Valerie Gardner, who is a Black woman, is the current library director of the Hampton Public Library! Although they did not film in Hampton, Virginia, I was so pleased that this film got that detail right, the name of the local public library.

So where did they film the exterior for the library scene? That’s when I searched online for filming locations for Hidden Figures, and the Movie Maps site provided details, that the library exterior was the Cherokee County Board of Education building, specifically the old Canton Grammar School, which you can see below in this historical image from the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. As you can tell by the white pillars in front and the side entrances, that’s definitely the location!

Also, when I searched for info about the old Canton Grammar School, which was built in 1914, I learned that the Cherokee County School Board postponed demolition of the old Canton Grammar School historic building in 2015. That was a good decision, because they filmed there for this movie the very next year! This building is also included on the Cherokee County Historical Society’s “Historic Sites Worth Saving” site.

A closer look at what this scene represents

I love the tangents that research takes me on this site, but I want to revisit what this scene and reel librarian character represent. The reel librarian is only onscreen for a few seconds, so she lands in the Class IV category, but the impact of what she says and does (getting the Vaughan family kicked out for being in the “Whites” section of the library) is far-reaching. I think it’s clear that the reel librarian character — with the not-subtle moniker of “White Librarian” — is named to indicate her role in perpetuating White supremacy. It’s not subtle, and it shouldn’t be. This librarian is a gatekeeper personified, literally keeping Black and Brown library users from knowledge and resources available to White members of the public. Why? Because “That’s just the way it is.” But Dorothy Vaughan doesn’t accept that circular logic or the librarian’s resigned shrug. She doesn’t let an obstructionist librarian get in the way of her future.

I wrote in my first impressions post of Hidden Figures that the “White Librarian” character serves the role of Information Provider. However, she is there not to provide information to any characters, but rather to inform the audience about and to reflect the societal rules that librarians were also participating in a system to unjustly segregate citizens.

After rewatching this film, my husband asked me about what I thought, from my perspective as a librarian, about Dorothy Vaughan taking that library book. Did I feel conflict within myself, being both a librarian and a White woman trying to better understand my White privilege and work for social justice. My answer was immediate: I support Dorothy Vaughan in this scene. In general, sure, I do not advocate taking library books out on the sly — and certainly not because of the “I pay taxes” excuse — because I believe resources in a public library are for the community. But as this movie demonstrates, those books were not there at this time for the community’s inclusive use at large; they were there for exclusive communities. Dorothy is breaking rules that were perpetuating White supremacy and restricting access and resources to people of color in their community. The rules were unjust; Dorothy’s personal act of civil disobedience was, therefore, just. That’s what matters in this scene, and in my opinion, that’s the bigger lesson that this scene represents.

A closer look at film reviews and analyses

I also sought out additional perspectives and commentary about this library scene in Hidden Figures and what it represents, then and now.

Leesa Renee Hall, a Black writer and anti-bias facilitator, called out the importance of this scene and how it is key to showcasing Dorothy Vaughan’s forward-thinking flexibility and professional resiliency:

“Dorothy Vaughan taught herself FORTRAN back in the 1960s to stay relevant. […] Spotting trends and adapting to them is the key to survivability in today’s job market.”

Leesa Renée Hall, What a Scene From #HiddenFigures Can Teach Us About #Automation #Disruption and Staying #Employable, 2 March 2017

Janell Hobson focused on Black women’s hidden labor in a review of the film and spotlighted the library scene:

With keen insight as one of the human “computers” at NASA, she understands how quickly her role—and that of her team of black women computers—will be replaced by this daunting object. Having already suffered the humiliation of being ejected from the “white” section of her local library in Virginia—and displaying eloquent rage when she warns the police officer throwing her out to not touch her sons while catching herself suddenly as she code-switches to polite dialogue lest she be manhandled and arrested—Dorothy puts to the test her newfound knowledge of Fortran, the early computer-programming language she must master and which she learned from the book she smuggled out of the library.

Janell Hobson, “Honoring the Legacy of Katherine Johnson, Hidden Figures and Black Women’s Historic Hidden Labor,” Ms., 17 Jan. 2017

In a 2019 undergraduate thesis for Sanata Dharma University in Indonesia, Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu argues that this library scene demonstrates Dorothy Vaughan’s persistence:

The persistence of Dorothy also can be seen as Dorothy and her children go to the public library. […] Dorothy is a persistent person since she does not like to accept something unfair or unequal right away even though it is acceptable in that era.

Bertha Uli Fransiska Pasaribu, “The Struggles Against Multiple Discrimination in Hidden Figures” undergraduate thesis, 2019

Christina Vasilevski, a Toronto-based writer, delves into how the film illustrates different ways that White characters in the film participate in systemic racism:

The movie illustrates how systemic these barriers are by showing that nearly every white person in the film is complicit in their maintenance. A white librarian tries to shoo Dorothy away from the math and computer books in the library because those are in the “whites only” section. […] One of the movie’s chief virtues is that it doesn’t hide that truth. Everyone takes part in racism, even if no one explicitly uses the N-word.

Christina Vasilevski, “Hidden Figures, Not-So-Hidden Meaning,” 5 Jan. 2017

In a commentary piece in the Austin American-Statesman, Maya Payne Smart wrote about how this scene illustrates barriers — barriers that continue today:

“As a book lover and community advocate for literacy and libraries, this scene got me thinking about today’s hidden figures. It distills so many dimensions of the enduring obstacles to equality in America, from restricted access to career-propelling information to the threat of rebuke for daring to challenge the social order. And to think that Dorothy was one of the lucky ones — a college-educated NASA employee.

Today, incredible barriers to adult education and career advancement continue to persist. And there’s not necessarily a villainous gatekeeper standing between workers and the information they need. Complex systems of discrimination and segregation conspire to limit opportunity for many.”

Maya Payne Smart, “Commentary: ‘Hidden Figures’ illustrates barriers to advancement,” Austin American-Statesman, 25 Jan. 2017

A closer look at library segregation in the South

We already learned last month from Dr. Aisha Johnson and her lecture on the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program that some rural counties in the South started desegregating in the 1930s in order to secure library funding. But it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — three years after this film is set — that discrimination in public spaces like public libraries was officially outlawed.

I also learned about how in 1939, five Black teenagers protested at the all-White Alexandria Public Library in Virginia, two months after the American Library Association (ALA) first adopted the “Library Bill of Rights” which included a statement that “Library meeting rooms should be available on equal terms to all groups in the community” (Weigand). On the Digital Public Library of America’s online exhibit about the desegregation of public libraries, I also watched a 1962 news clip of Black students demonstrating civil disobedience at the public library in Albany, Georgia. From this article on the Granville County Library System site, I read about the Greenville Eight, the Tougaloo Nine, and the St. Helen Four, and the impacts of their actions to desegregate public libraries.

And this article from the American Libraries magazine highlights additional untold stories of heroes who participated in sit-ins and protests at public libraries during the Civil Rights era, including Teri Moncure Mojganiwho participated in a public library protest in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and became a librarian herself, at Xavier University of Louisiana.

Here are some additional resources that explore segregation, past and present, in our public libraries:

It feels natural that in taking a closer look at this library scene in Hidden Figures, we end up taking a closer look in general at public library segregation in the U.S. It was devastating, but necessary, to read about the harmful effects of actions and non-actions of librarians and library organizations during this painful — and painfully enduring — time period. As I wrote earlier, “These are stories of American heroes that need to be shared and experienced.” We must not forget, and films like Hidden Figures are one vital way to help us remember.

Sources used