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

Paranormal research in ‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009)

“Our library has an occult section?”

Diablo Cody, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for Juno (2007), followed up that hit film by writing the screenplay for the horror movie Jennifer’s Body, which starred Megan Fox in the title role and Amanda Seyfried as Jennifer’s best friend, Needy. This movie was not a hit at the time (the marketing was so bad and missed the point of the film!), but since then, it has gained fans as an under-appreciated cult classic and “forgotten feminist classic” (Grady). My husband and I recently watched this movie for the first time via Amazon Prime.

If you’re unfamiliar with the movie, here’s a trailer.

“Jennifer’s Body (2009) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers” video uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube license.

School library scene

I was very surprised when a school library and research scene popped up in the film! Disturbed by how her friend is behaving, Needy visits the school library at 1 hour and 10 minutes into the movie.

“So I did some research. Paranormal research.”

Needy does some paranormal research in her school library, in this scene from Jennifer's Body, 2009.
Hurray to all the visible call numbers in this school library scene!

Needy looks up occult books and paranormal research, including how to kill a demon. Here are the glimpses of the book shelves and titles featured in this short library scene:

Closeup of the occult section in this school library.
Closeup of the occult section in this school library.
Closeup of the occult section in this school library.
Closeup of the occult section in this school library.
Needy researches the occult in her school library, Jennifer's Body (2009)
This is my serious research face, y’all.

In the next scene, Needy shares what she found out with her boyfriend, Chip, and she tries to explain her theory about Jennifer:

Needy: Jennifer’s evil. I’ve been through the occult section at the library five times.

Chip: Our library has an occult section?

Needy: Yes, it’s really small. You have to read this.

Needy then pulls out a binder from her backpack, full of stuff she has printed out about demonic transference.

In the end, Chip doesn’t believe her. Which he comes to regret later.

But I do feel Chip and his incredulity about their school library having an occult section! And there looked to be a couple of rows of books in that section, which doesn’t feel that small to me… I guess it’s all about perspective, eh?

Was there a reel librarian?

The first time we watched this scene, I did NOT notice a school librarian. So I was going to chalk this up as a Class V movie, films with library scenes without librarians. However, when I went back to rewatch the scene and take screenshots, lo and behold… there IS a flash of a reel librarian! A blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo. Literally. Because I literally blinked and missed that school librarian the first time round.

But here is the reel librarian, in her nanoseconds of glory. She looks to be a White woman, with reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair, and she is wearing eyeglasses and is dressed in a suit jacket. She appears to be shelving books, as you can just glimpse the top of a rolling cart beside her.

A reel librarian shelves books in her school library, in a blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo in Jennifer's Body (2009).
A reel librarian shelves books in her school library.

Alas, this reel librarian goes uncredited in the movie’s cast list. 😦

This school librarian helps establish the setting of the school library, so she fulfills the role of Information Provider. Ultimately, the movie lands in the Class IV category of movies with cameo appearances from reel librarians.

Have you seen Jennifer’s Body lately? Did you remember the paranormal research scene? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used:

Public librarian sighting in ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ (2018)

You know things aren’t going to go well when you’re on the bad side of a librarian.

Each October, I focus on film analysis posts for scary movies, horror films, thrillers and mysteries, etc. It’s Halloween season, and reel librarians pop up in a lot of scary movies! My husband and I recently watched the 2018 movie adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The book, Jackson’s final published work, was originally published in 1962, and this film adaptation had the support of Jackson’s son, Laurence Hyman. The movie was directed by Stacie Passon and stars Taissa Farmiga as younger sister Merricat Blackwood; Alexandra Daddario as older sister Constance Blackwood; Crispin Glover as their Uncle Julian; and Sebastian Stan as their cousin, Charles Blackwood.

Here’s a movie trailer, and it provides a good overview of the basic plot and the tense, modern gothic atmosphere:

WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (2019) Official Trailer” video, uploaded by Brainstorm Media, Standard YouTube license

Public library scene

Merricat is the family’s sole connection to the outside world, and she goes into town once a week to shop for groceries and check out and return library books. She also witnesses and endures the town’s growing animosity toward her family.

At 5 minutes and 43 seconds into the film, Merricat goes to town to pick up a book at the library. In a literal blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo, the camera focuses on the public librarian’s face for a few seconds. The White actress who played this role is uncredited in the film’s cast list. It’s interesting to me how glamorous this reel librarian appears, with her carefully prepared hair curls, beauty marks, and red lipstick. Her dressed-to-the-nines attire also reeks of (old-fashioned?) glamour, with cat’s-eye glasses, fur scarf (!), royal purple fabric, and gold brooch and earrings. In her gold and purple attire, she stands out in vivid relief against the dark wood background of file drawers. And THAT LIBRARIAN GLARE, y’all. Magnificent. So chilling.

Reel librarian closeup in 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' (2018)
I still have my librarian glare, y’all. Don’t mess with librarians.

The camera then switches to a closeup of the librarian stamping a library book, entitled The Modern Method: French Cookbook. I had to rotate the image, as seen below, to be able to read the library card, which actually gets the title — or rather, the sub-title –slightly wrong, as it reads: The Modern Method: French Cookery Book.

Closeup of library book and library card for "The Modern Method: French Cookbook"
Closeup of library book and library card for “The Modern Method: French Cookbook”

Is this a real book? Y’all KNOW I had to check it in WorldCat, riiiiiiight?! 😉 Alas, I could not find a record of any book in WorldCat with that exact title. (WorldCat is the online library catalog of libraries worldwide.) It certainly looks like an older, well-used book in the screenshot above, but perhaps the film’s production company made up a fake book jacket? If you know that this book does actually exist, let me know in the comments!

I also want to pause a moment to send some love to the propmaster here for all the extra items in that frame that convey the info that this is a library book, including a couple of library stamps, a stamp ink pad, an additional library check-out card off to the side, a fountain pen, and a book with a leather binding. It’s like a still-life portrait of a library book.

The camera then switches to Merricat leaving the public library, clutching the book close to her chest. Again, minimal but effective props: a library sign and a library cart full of books beside the door.

The exterior of the public library, as seen in the short library scene in 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle' (2018)
The exterior of the public library

Public library filming location

This movie’s Filming & Productions page on IMDb.com lists two main filming locations: Bray and Enniskerry in County Wicklow, Ireland. And this online article has several behind-the-scenes photos of the library exterior scene with Taissa Farminga. The article states that this scene was filmed in the Enniskerry Village in early August 2016.

Therefore, I looked up the County Wicklow public library site, which includes exterior photos of all its branch libraries, including the Enniskerry library. But the exterior of the Enniskerry library does not match up with the building exterior seen above. Therefore, most likely another period-appropriate building stood in for the public library scene. Again, if you know the actual location used for this public library scene, let me know in the comments!

There is also a mob scene at the end of the film, and I rewatched this scene several times to see if I could pick out the reel librarian in the crowd. Alas, I could not spot her… but given the disapproving look on that reel librarian’s face, as seen above, I would not be surprised if she had been in the crowd.

Reel librarian’s role

This uncredited reel librarian primarily serves as an Information Provider, as she helps set the library scene. As the librarian is seen onscreen for only a few seconds, this cameo lands the film in the Class IV category of reel librarian movies. This cameo also highlights how EVEN THE PUBLIC LIBRARIAN disapproves of this family, with her mouth pressed into a thin line and her eyes sending a hard look of disapproval. You know things aren’t going to go well when you’re on the bad side of a librarian.

Have you seen this movie or read the novel? Is the library or librarian mentioned in the original novel? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Research and high school library scenes in ‘Dangerous Minds’

“This movie may be called Dangerous Minds, but it seems to me that the librarians have Suspicious Minds!”

Because we’re (still) living in coronavirus times, a lot of us — at least here in the United States — are not going back to school in the usual way (e.g., I’m teaching and working remotely from home again this fall). But we can still experience that back-to-school feeling by proxy, via the medium of film! Therefore, I thought it would be a good time to revisit the 1995 movie, Dangerous Minds, starring Michelle Pfeiffer as Louanne Johnson, a retired U.S. Marine and White woman who becomes a teacher in an impoverished, inner-city school and teaches poetry and literature to high schoolers, many of whom are Black and Latino students. The movie is based on Johnson’s real-life teaching experiences, as detailed in her 1992 memoir My Posse Don’t Do Homework.

Below is a trailer for the film, especially if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen it… and an opportunity to get Coolio’s hit song, Gangsta’s Paradise, stuck again in your head. You’re welcome. 🙂

“Dangerous Minds 1995 Trailer | Michelle Pfeiffer” video uploaded by Trailer Chan, Standard YouTube License

Teacher research

I like that in introducing Louanne Johnson’s character, the director John N. Smith took time to show us Johnson’s work ethic. Yes, we know she’s a former Marine, but it’s nice to actually see her apply that discipline and work ethic to her new chosen profession. And one way they highlight this in the film is to show Johnson researching teaching and classroom management strategies.

The visible titles include:

  • Assertive Discipline for Parents: A Proven, Step-by-Step Approach to Solving Everyday Behavior Problems (Revised edition) by Lee Canter and Marlene Canter
  • “Disciplining the Adolescent” article reprinted from Teacher’s Quarterly

OF COURSE you know I looked both of these titles up, and yep, it looks like they’re both legit! The book was originally published in 1985, and the revised edition was published in 1993. The periodical is most likely the California Teacher’s Quarterly, which has been published since 1907.

High school library setting and scene

Almost an hour into the movie, Johnson introduces a “Dylan Dylan” poetry contest in class. The goal is to find a Dylan Thomas poem that’s like a Bob Dylan poem/song and write about how they connect.

Next stop? You guessed it — the high school library!

This school library scene lasts only one minute long, but we get to see the typical school library setting, with bookcases, wood tables and chairs, and lots and lots of posters. The camera pans around to showcase students in groups at different tables in the school library. According to the filming locations listed on the film’s IMDB.com entry, this scene was filmed at San Mateo High School in San Mateo, California.

Suspicious minds

Although it feels novel — to Johnson and to her fellow teacher mentor, played by George Dzunda — that she got her students to go to the school library, the students already seem pretty comfortable in the space and confident about how to start researching. (Suspension of disbelief? Discuss.) As you can see in one of the photos above, I like the detail of one student, a young Black man in a grey hoodie, is holding a slip of paper in his hands (on which I assume is a call number) as he walks around the bookcases.

The student has clearly been successful at finding the book he was looking for — yay! — but the librarians at the high school library do not seem so impressed, however.

Rather, they are giving MAJOR side-eye to this student as he passes them seated side-by-side at the front desk. He doesn’t so much as glance at the school librarians, but the camera focuses, albeit briefly, on the two librarians, one Black woman and one White woman. This movie may be called Dangerous Minds, but it seems to me that the librarians have Suspicious Minds! Perhaps you could argue that they seem surprised, rather than suspicious? I looked up my past notes, and I initially wrote down the word “surprised,” but after this second viewing, I think the more apt descriptor is “suspicious.” Either way, it’s clear these two school librarians have no interest in getting up and helping any of the students. 😦

A librarian by any other name?

I also thought it interesting that although there are two school librarians, there is only ONE nameplate on the desk, which reads “Toni Devereaux, Librarian.” You can see this nameplate more clearly in the image below.

But which one is Toni Devereaux? There is no such name included in the cast list. Jeff Feringa is listed as Librarian #1 (she is seated on the right in the photo above, dressed in the floral dress and lace collar), and Sarah Marshall is listed as Librarian #2 (she is seated on the left in the photo above, in a green cardigan). Is Toni supposed to be Librarian #1, as Feringa is listed first in the credits? It remains unclear. Also, why are there two librarians at this school, when it seems clear that neither one is interested in helping the students?

What role do these reel librarians serve in this movie? Although neither librarian actually helps any of the students, I would argue they still both fulfill the role of Information Provider. They do help establish the setting of the high school library; in fact, you could argue they function more like props! But more than that, I would argue their suspicious glances are also reflective of a larger issue, a societal under-appreciation and distrust of these students and their abilities. While I appreciate the racial diversity of these school librarians — please also see this post highlighting 5 movies that feature Black reel librarians — their suspicious attitudes and seemingly purposeful inaction leave me disappointed. Ultimately, their cameo appearances land this movie in the Class IV category.

Sources used

‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ librarian

“Didn’t even get to keep my damn tiara.”

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post on the Go Fug Yourself site about how the film Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) was now old enough to buy booze. In other words, happy 21st anniversary of the premiere of this cult classic! I first saw this movie years ago, and I remembered three main things about it: (1) it is a teen comedy, but it goes a LOT darker then you would expect, (2) this film is super quotable, and (3) it features a reel librarian! This last reason is why you’re here, right? 😉 So let’s get to it!

If you haven’t seen Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) in a while, the film’s tagline will get you up to speed: “A small-town beauty pageant turns deadly as it becomes clear that someone will go to any lengths to win.” The plot includes murder, a huge swan float engulfed in flames, beauty pageant contestants upchucking contaminated seafood, and so much more!

The film is very well-cast, starring: Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy (RIP), Amy Adams (I had totally forgotten she was in this movie!), Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley (I had *not* forgotten about her scene-stealing her way through this film!), and Ellen Barkin, among many others. Here’s a trailer:

“Drop Dead Gorgeous Trailer” video uploaded by pbiasizzo, Standard YouTube License

The reel librarian shows up in two short cameos, but each time, she is very memorable.

Librarian scene #1: “Didn’t even get to keep my damn tiara.”

Claudia Wilkens plays Iona Hildebrandt, who gets introduced as the local pageant winner in 1945, the first year of the Sarah Rose Miss Teenage Princess pageant. And that first beauty pageant winner grew up to be… the local public librarian! Does it blow the audience’s mind that the movie’s title could also include the librarian?!

Below is a side-by-side comparison of Iona in ’45 versus 54 years later. It’s interesting to note that however else she has changed physically, Iona still wears her hair in a similar style, with rolls of hair on either side of a middle part.

The pageant winner becomes the town librarian
The pageant winner becomes the town librarian

She reveals that she had to give up her crown for scrap because of World War II. And she utters one of my favorite lines in the film:

“Didn’t even get to keep my damn tiara.”

You can tell she is STILL upset about this, 54 years later. Which is even funnier as the actress says all this in the driest, most deadpan voice and intonation.

The reel librarian with all her reel library props
The reel librarian with all her reel library props

The words “library” or “librarian” are never uttered, so we only know that this character is a reel librarian because of the physical props and setting. The library background behind her includes a desk, stacks of books, old lamps, bookcases, files, and tall windows. All those stacks of books give the library a fairly messy look, and the setting is all about the inanimate objects. There are no other people in this library.

The reel librarian’s personal props include a book and a due date stamp. She is dressed very plainly and conservatively, in a brown dress with long sleeves and a high neck. I am rather shocked that they did NOT add glasses on a chain to her look!

Here’s a clip of this brief scene, which lasts 15 seconds:

“Mount Rose American Teen Princess 1945” video, uploaded by Cam Williams, Standard YouTube License

Librarian scene #2: “It’s best with lots of butter.

Librarian shows up again briefly, this time to explain lutefisk, a culinary detail that immediately reinforces the film’s setting in the Upper Midwest, where many Nordic immigrants settled in the U.S.

What is lutefisk, you may wonder? The librarian is back to explain:

“Lutefisk is codfish that’s been salted and soaked in lye for a week or so.”

She pauses, and then states:

“It’s best with lots of butter.”

Yeah, lutefisk is… an acquired taste. (My mom, a real-life librarian, once had a shirt that read: “Just say no to lutefisk!“)

The reel librarian explains about lutefisk and how it's best with lots of butter.
Truer words were never spoken. See this gif, and others from the film, online here.

Almost everything in this scene looks the same as the first library scene. The librarian still has a library stamp in her hands — although this time, she’s sitting at her desk instead of standing in front of it — and she’s wearing the same dress and hairstyle.

This final scene with the reel librarian lasts less than 10 seconds total.

The reel librarian’s role

What is the purpose of this reel librarian’s role in Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)? Although she is quite informative — first embodying the origins of the beauty pageant and then explaining what lutefisk is, with devastating efficiency — she primarily serves the role of Comic Relief in this Class IV film. This reel librarian is like the straight (wo)man in a comedy routine.

The comedy in these librarian cameos are all about juxtapositions, including hearing a librarian cuss and seeing how this beautiful young woman, the first winner of the local beauty pageant, turns into a sour-faced librarian.

Ahhhhhhh, the comedic irony! The upending of expectations! Or wait… is this really a cautionary tale of what awaits beauty pageant winners?! Discuss. 😉

Sources used

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