31 thoughts and questions I had while watching ‘A Winter Romance’ (2021)

“Digging into history is what I love to do.”

I was browsing recently through the newly added movies on Amazon Prime, and a TV movie entitled A Winter Romance (2021) caught my eye because the word “librarian” was mentioned in the first line of its summary:

When librarian TAYLOR HARRIS suddenly loses her job, she moves back to her small hometown in Montana. There, she gets involved in the fight to help save her brother’s hotel from tycoon JOEL SHEENAN. But things become complicated when she ends up falling for Joel.

Jessica Lowndes, a White Canadian actress, stars as librarian Taylor, and Chad Michael Murray, a White American actor, co-stars as Joel in this GAC Family Channel TV movie — with all the hallmarks of a Hallmark or Lifetime TV movie. Since the librarian is the main character in this TV movie, it took me HOURS to watch this 85-minute movie. Since I had so many notes from all the pauses, replays, research tangents, etc., I was struggling with how to structure this post… which finally led me to the realization that I could structure it more stream-of-consciousness style, noting all my random thoughts and questions I had while watching this TV movie. I hope you enjoy this new kind of post format!

*MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD* (But are there really any kind of spoilers for this kind of holiday romance?)

Here’s a preview trailer for the movie:

1. Why does this TV movie have multiple titles?

Title screen for 'A Winter Romance' (2021)
Title screen for ‘A Winter Romance’ (2021)

The opening scene clearly reveals the movie title to be A Winter Romance, as seen above. But when I tried to look up details about the movie using that title, I came up empty. Finally, looking up the director’s name, Bradley Walsh, led me to the TV movie’s original title, Colors of Love, which led me to other alternate titles, including An Autumn Romance when it was released on the GAC Family cable channel (and as seen above in the YouTube preview). And all of these titles are different from the source novel, The Tycoon’s Kiss, by Jane Porter. Why does this TV movie have 3+ titles? This does not feel like a good sign.

2. Is there a real “Seattle Reference Library”?

Seattle Reference Library exterior
Seattle Reference Library exterior

The opening title screen is of the Seattle cityscape. You can see the Seattle Space Needle in the upper right in the screenshot in #1 above, and the boomerang-shaped buildings along the bottom are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation campus. Is this movie set in Seattle? How do we get to Montana, as mentioned in the plot summary?

The next shot is the outside of a building with prominent black letters on the sign that read “Seattle Reference Library,” further emphasizing the Seattle location. Is there a real-life library called the “Seattle Reference Library”? Not that I know of, and I live in this region of the U.S. The glass architecture of this building seems to be suggesting the iconic glass building that houses the central Seattle Public Library building. If you recognize this real-life building that’s standing in for this library onscreen, please leave a comment.

3. Don’t piss off librarians by introducing a librarian character and then having that librarian immediately shush a patron onscreen.

Shushing WHILE smiling?!
Shushing WHILE smiling?!

There should be a moratorium on showing librarians shushing onscreen. It’s so stereotypical and so unnecessary, especially in a modern movie.

After Taylor helps a writer who is researching his book — the key is in primary sources, like land grants and diaries — the writer gets too excited (“I have to call my publisher!”) that Taylor shushes him, as seen above. Shushing WHILE smiling?! Insert rolling eyes emoji here: 🙄

4. Shushing aside, this librarian seems to be good at her job.

I think this line will be the set-up for the movie, as Taylor says to the patron, “I’m happy to help… Digging into history is what I love to do.” Shushing aside, Taylor seems to be good at her job, and we are clearly being encouraged to respect her skills as a librarian.

The library director, left, enjoys a (brief) happy moment with research librarian Taylor, right
The library director, left, enjoys a (brief) happy moment with research librarian Taylor, right

The library director, Linda (Jenni Burke), also happens to walk by while Taylor is wrapping up with the writer, and she compliments her work, “It’s like you have a sixth sense.” It’s SO RARE to see multiple librarians onscreen, and I appreciate that the library director is a Black woman. Linda has the power in this relationship, and Taylor, a White woman, is visibly happy to earn praise from her boss. The two librarians share a warm and professional dynamic together.

5. I am guessing that the importance of primary sources will be a theme.

In her exchange with Linda, Taylor also states, “There’s still some stuff that you can’t find on the internet.” So. True. Primary sources, y’all! I feel like this will be a theme in the rest of the movie… so let’s just put a pin in that here.

6. The lack of stable library funding is depressingly realistic.

Linda then reveals the bad news as the two walk down the stairs. The city is facing major budget cuts, and the library has used up some grant funding, which means… the research librarian position has been cut. Taylor’s out of a job, pronto. Yikes. It’s depressing, but I do appreciate the real talk about the inadequacies and instability of library funding. (This was also the crux behind The Twelve Trees of Christmas TV movie!) However, the two part on good terms (Linda: “I’m already looking for other funding. The second I can bring you back, I… We’re gonna miss you so much.”), which is kind of refreshing.

Librarian hug!
Librarian hug!

7. Being a librarian IS a dream job.

Taylor then calls her brother, who’s in Montana, and shares that “was my dream job.” I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall EVER hearing a librarian job being described onscreen as a “dream job” before. Bless. And her brother is so supportive (“You were good at it, too”).

So, 2 minutes in, and we’ve already connected the dots between Seattle and Montana. And we’ve already seen multiple librarians onscreen!

8. Books are our brand!

After her car ends up in a ditch due to icy roads, Taylor gets a ride from Joel Sheenan (their first “meet cute” moment!) to her brother’s house. We meet her brother, Craig (played by Dennis Andres), who is married to a Black woman, Christine (played by Moni Ogunsuyi), and they have a cute-as-a-button daughter, Zoe (played by Delia Lisette Chambers). And I thought it sweet that Zoe gives her a picture she drew of her aunt Taylor in a library, surrounded by books. And then Zoe picks out a book for Taylor to read to her for bedtime.

Books are indeed our brand!

I’m not mad at that association. Of course, there are many more things in a library’s collection than books, and librarians NEVER have time to “read on the job” like some people assume. It’s just… the lowest common denominator. Associating books with librarians is easy and predictable. As is this TV movie.

Her niece draws her a picture of her aunt in a library
Is that me? Of course, you’re a librarian, and you’re surrounded by books!
Reading a bedtime story to her niece Zoe
“We have some reading to do!”

9. WTF: “Maybe they’re right… Libraries are obsolete.”

At 14 1/2 minutes into this TV movie, Taylor is talking with her sister-in-law, Christine, about her love life, that she’s been dating these tech bros in Seattle. And then comes this line:

[T]he only books they read are on tiny little screens. But maybe they’re right. That, as much as I love what I do, libraries are obsolete.

W.T.F. Libraries are NOT obsolete, and no self-respecting librarian would ever say that. We librarians actually deal with constant changes in technology and ongoing reassessments of community needs, while also trying to preserve access to information in disparate, older formats. It takes skill to balance all that.

And it’s her brother and sister-in-law who push back on this! Craig responds, “Not as long as you have anything to say about it, right?,” and Christine says, “Somewhere out there, there’s a guy who’s gonna appreciate your love of books.” Why are all these supporting characters doing all the work of validating this central librarian character?! I’m sensing some White woman privilege here.

Taylor gets comforted by her sister-inlaw
I’m not given any agency or storyline of my own in this TV movie; rather, I’m just here to comfort your White woman tears about your love life.

10. Does everyone think librarians judge people by their reading choices?

Craig, to his wife: Did I ever tell you that my little sister, back in high school, wouldn’t date a guy unless he could name all three Brontë sisters?

Taylor: That’s not true. Two out of three was OK.

Craig, Christine, and Taylor at breakfast
Craig, Christine, and Taylor at breakfast

This exchange was part of the scene above, and I rolled my eyes at the thought that everyone — or at least, this screenwriter — assumes that librarians judge people by their reading choices or knowledge. Not all of us are literary snobs! (I personally love reading mysteries and YA fantasy fiction. But our cat is named Brontë, so perhaps the lady doth protest too much, methinks? … 😉 )

11. Yes, librarians do visit other libraries wherever they go.

Exterior shot of Forest Ridge Public Library building
A librarian visits another library… so meta!

At 20 minutes into the film, Taylor visits the local public library in Forest Ridge. This rang true for me. One of the first things I do when I visit a new place is to visit a local library.

Note: Bracebridge Public Library in the Ontario province, Canada, served as the filming location for the fictional Forest Ridge Public Library.

12. Do they get the call numbers right?

A closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers
A closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers

As Taylor enters the library, we get treated to a closeup of Dewey Decimal call numbers. This public library uses the Dewey Decimal classification system, which is common for public libraries, plus there are red Reference labels on the book spines. Hallmarks of actual library books! But they must be older library books, as it turns out that the 819 call number is no longer being used, at least not in the U.S. (but perhaps still in Canada?). The 810’s are used for American literature in English, and the 819 range used to be used for American puzzle books. Who knew?! 🙂

So they do get the call numbers mostly right in this TV movie. An A for effort. You can read more about call number shenanigans here in this post, and how you can spot the difference between a bookstore and a library here in this post.

13. Librarians deserve their own “meet cute” moment, too.

In this first public library scene, we get to meet another library director, Joyce, played by Darlene Cooke, a Black Canadian actress. Taylor and Joyce get their own librarians’ “meet cute” moment over a book display of “the greatest love stories of all time,” in which Taylor chooses Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Joyce convinces Taylor to get a library card in order to check out the book.

A librarians’ “meet cute” moment!

What purpose(s) does this scene serve? My guesses: To reinforce this Brontë thread that was introduced in the previous scene, and to introduce a way to get Taylor working at this library in order to stay in town.

And as lovely and warm as this “meet cute” moment is between the two librarians — and how appreciative I am that we are meeting multiple librarians of color in this TV movie! — I cannot help but notice that, once again, the persons of color seem to exist solely to direct attention toward Taylor (Joyce reveals that “Zoe always talks about her Aunt Taylor being a librarian too.”)

14. Is Anne Brontë the best Brontë?

The Brontë thread pays off in the next scene! At 23 minutes, Joel comes out of the coffee shop as Taylor walks by with her library book.

Joel and Taylor meet up on the sidewalk after Taylor has checked out a library book
Are we having our second “meet cute” moment?

Taylor: I just stopped by the library and got myself a card [shows her book, Wuthering Heights]

Joel: Ohhh! That’s a good choice, although I’ve always been more of a Charlotte fan.

Taylor: Charlotte?

Joel: Charlotte Brontë. instead of Emily. You know, Jane Eyre.

Taylor: But we cannot forget their favorite sister.

Joel: And how could we ever forget Anne? Oh, I love Anne!

Taylor: You’re full of a lot of surprises, aren’t you?

I also personally prefer Jane Eyre. (Don’t @ me, Wuthering Heights fans. We can co-exist.) And is Anne the best Brontë? I should finally get around to reading my copy of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall… if there are any die-hard Anne Brontë fans reading this right now, please leave a comment! Also, it’s hilarious to me that no one ever mentions their brother, Branwell Brontë.

Also, how many “meet cute” moments does Taylor need?! This movie is working VERY hard to convince us that it’s actually a romance and that Taylor and Joel have chemistry together. (I’m not convinced. And I’m not the only one. In this online review of the movie, the critic observes that “Taylor … isn’t in search of love as much as she is in search of a job.” )

15. A third of the way into this movie, we finally arrive at the central conflict and plot device.

The next scene takes place at the community center, in which city councillors are holding public comments on the proposed permits to turn the 100-year-old Graff Hotel into a glossy new “destination” resort. The problem? Taylor’s brother works at (or manages?) the Graff Hotel, and Joel is the one who has bought the hotel. Taylor is conflicted! But then Taylor has her BIG IDEA.

Joel and Taylor at the city council meeting
Taylor and Joel are at odds

Taylor: Isn’t the Graff Hotel 100 years old? So that means it’s eligible for a landmark status.

Phyllis (played by Andrea Davis, a Black American actress): For landmark status, the state of Montana says we have to prove that a significant historical event took place involving the building.

Joel: That’s exactly right. Thank you, Phyllis. And according to our research, there’s no evidence of that with the Graff Hotel.

Taylor: Well, who did this research? […] So you’re saying that if we find a significant event happened at the Graff, then the hotel would be preserved?

Phyllis: According to the state of Montana, yes.

Craig: Phyllis, maybe we could take some time to explore this before the council makes their final decision?

Phyllis: All right, this is what we’ll do. We’ll take a week to look this over, then we’ll reconvene and hear what everyone has to say. Any objections?

Ah hah! This is where it pays off that Taylor’s a librarian, and that she knows her way around research. Librarians to the rescue!

16. Is this movie correct about the qualifications for landmark status in Montana?

City council chairwoman Phyllis commands attention at the community meeting
City council chairwoman Phyllis commands attention at the community meeting

So Phyllis, the city council chairwoman, stated above that, “For landmark status, the state of Montana says we have to prove that a significant historical event took place involving the building.” Is this accurate?

Yes and no. Yes: one of the criteria for landmark status is association with a significant historical event. No: that’s not the ONLY criteria to be considered for landmark status.

According to the National Register of Historic Places page on Montana’s official state government website, there are four criteria for consideration:

1. Be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

2. Be associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or

3. Embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or

4. Have yielded, or may likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history. In addition, properties must possess a high degree of integrity to qualify for listing in the Register – in other words, they must be relatively unchanged in appearance from the historic period.

I mean, y’all knew I would look this up, right?! Right. I’m glad y’all know me so well. 😀

17. I guessed correctly about the part-time library job opportunity!

This TV movie is very predictable. Thirty-eight minutes in, Joyce asks Taylor to work part-time at the library.

Joyce asks Taylor to work part-time at the public library
Your niece Zoe gave you a great reference. Would you like to work part-time at the library?

Joyce: Are you enjoying your visit with Catherine and Heathcliff?

Taylor: Very much. 

Joyce: I was thinking, my part-time librarian recently moved to Denver, and I’ve been looking someone to help out around here, if you’re interested.

Taylor:Oh, I mean, that would be amazing, I just… I don’t know how long I’m here for. 

Joyce: Well, while you are here, I could sure use your help. […] Come by tomorrow and we’ll get you started.

My next prediction? Taylor’s going to use the library’s resources to research the Graff Hotel. But uh, that’s not the same thing as working in the library. This is just being used as a plot excuse.

18. In two minutes, you can get a job AND a date!

At this point, my husband, Sam, joined me. He stayed long enough to comment on this next scene, in which Joel and Taylor have YET ANOTHER “meet cute” moment. Joel asks her for reader’s advisory recommendations as a way to actually ask her out on a date.

Joel and Taylor at the public library
Can I get some librarian help over here?

Joel: I was wondering if you could help me find a book. You see, I finished this one. Again.

Taylor: Jane Eyre. That’s impressive.

Joel: And I’m looking for something a little different. I figured, who better to ask than a librarian?

Taylor: Well, I don’t officially work here yet.

Joel [looking around and lowering his voice to a whisper]: Well, then we’ll make it unofficial. 

Here is Sam’s tongue-in-cheek reaction to Joel essentially shushing himself:

Sam: She hasn’t even shushed him yet! Librarians are professionals. You can’t just shush yourself. You have to WAIT to be shushed.

Me: I’ve written so many posts in which patrons shush each other. [Example: The school library scene in Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before]

Sam: Each other, yes. But not themselves. It’s a totally different thing to shush each other.

Me: 🙄

Sam: You are welcome for my contributions to this viewing experience. I am making this movie better.

Indeed.

19. “That’s not how any of this works!”

After three (!!!) “meet cute” moments, Taylor and Joel finalllllly go on a date, to a private dinner at the Graff Hotel. As they get to know each other beyond their mutual love of the Brontë sisters, we learn that Taylor doesn’t know the difference between library volunteers and actual, paid librarian professionals.

Craig and I grew up in Seattle. He’s actually the reason I got my first librarian job. […] We were in high school, and this one summer, our local library was looking for a volunteer, and I wanted the job more than anything, so Craig took the bus all the way downtown so that he could go talk to the head librarian, and he told him that no one loves books as much as I do, and that he would never have even opened a book if it weren’t for me. He must have been really convincing because I got the job, and… he’s been there for me ever since.

Sam beat me to it:

That’s not how any of this works! Volunteers are not the same thing as librarians!

I’m sure this backstory confessional had good intentions, but it unfortunately serves to reinforce the misconceptions that (1) loving books is the only requirement for a librarian, (2) anyone working in a library is a librarian, and (3) that you don’t have to pay librarians a fair wage. Real-life librarians are professionals with actual training and graduate-level education, and we deserve to be recognized and paid as professionals.

20. Yep, primary sources are important for historical research.

At 50 minutes into this TV movie, we get a library tour with Joyce — presumably on Taylor’s first day working at the public library — and OF COURSE Taylor asks about local history and primary sources. Joyce leads her to the archives room. So yes, the part-time librarian job IS a convenient plot device for Taylor to have time and access to research the Graff Hotel.

A glimpse at the public library's archives room
A glimpse at the public library’s archives room

Taylor: The best way of digging up the hotel’s history was from some local sources. Perhaps a first person’s account?

Joyce: Much better than searching the internet, yes. 

Taylor: And, considering you know the area so well, I was hoping you could point me in the right direction.

Joyce: Ah! I may have one idea. [takes her to the archives room]

Joyce: Over the years, the library’s collected a kind of archive of the town’s history. [points] Newspapers, photographs, letters and diaries. 

Taylor: What do you do with all these?

Joyce: Well, the plan was to have it digitized and online, but as you can see, we haven’t made much progress. If you think it can help. 

Taylor: It looks like a great place to start.

My next prediction is that Taylor’s going to parlay her short-term, part-time job into a long-term job digitizing the archives!

21. Pay attention to signage.

The library signage (newspapers and periodicals) doesn't match what's in the shelves (children's books)
The library signage (newspapers and periodicals) doesn’t match what’s in the shelves (children’s books)

Along the way to the archives room, we do get some glimpses of other parts of the public library, including this children’s book zone. But the signage on the ends of the bookcases says “newspapers back issues” and “periodicals back issues.” My guess is that the real-life library did have periodicals in this part of the library, but the set dressers moved children’s books into this area to be more visually dynamic and colorful — but then forgot to remove the signs off the ends of the bookcases.

Details matter.

22. Is Taylor the luckiest librarian in Montana?

At 56 mins, Taylor goes back to the hotel to see her brother. Craig asks how the search is going, and Taylor responds that “I’m hoping something turns up.” The pair then stroll by the old maids’ quarters — which have apparently just been serving as storage for the past hundred years? — and Taylor starts looking around the wardrobes and drawers.

The plot is too predictable… I think it will come as no surprise to you that within 30 seconds, Taylor finds EXACTLY the evidence she was hoping would turn up, an old scrapbook of letters and photographs from a maid who worked at the hotel in the early 1900s — including a photograph of Teddy Roosevelt in front of the hotel! Historical significance and landmark status, I can smell you coming down the research trail. Zero stars for predictability, but a gold star for depicting primary sources as discovered treasure!

Taylor finds an old scrapbook of letters and photos
I am the fastest research librarian in Montana!
A closeup of an historical photograph
Primary sources, like photographs and letters, for the win!

23. Librarians are like private detectives.

The next 10 minutes reveal how there are so many similarities between librarians and private detectives. (If you need more evidence, see this post, this post, and this post.)

I won’t get into all the details, but we next get a scene with Taylor, Joyce, and Craig in the public library’s archives room, and Taylor brandishes a magnifying glass to show the others how the photo is of Teddy Roosevelt during his time as U.S. President, between 1901 and 1909. (“Now that we know the timeframe, we can just narrow down the dates.”)

Taylor uses a magnifying glass to show Joyce and Craig that the historical photograph includes Teddy Roosevelt
If I told you I was Nancy Drew, y’all would believe me

In the next scene, Taylor uses clues in the photograph to discover the probable reason Roosevelt was in Forest Ridge (a freak snowstorm in springtime).

24. Yes, librarians seek help from other librarians.

Taylor then reveals to Craig that she has a friend, Caitlin, who works at the National Archives in Washington DC. (Do you think Caitlin knows Dr. Abby Chase?!)

So I emailed her [Caitlin] the photo and she said she was going to search the records to see all the traveling that the president did during that time… She said she would get back to me as soon as possible, but I think it’s looking good.

Do we have any doubt that the information she gets from Caitlin will be exactly what she needs to save the hotel? I don’t think so!

And yes, librarians do get help from colleagues and other librarians, archivists, and information professionals. We take our own advice; when we’re stuck in a research dead end, we ask each other for help!

25. A librarian gets a Poirot moment.

Reinforcing that link between librarians and private detectives… just like the literary private detective Hercule Poirot loves a rapt audience when he solves the mystery at the end of an Agatha Christie novel (I told you I like mysteries), Taylor gets her Poirot moment at the city council meeting, when she gets to reveal the hotel’s historical significance.

Taylor has her Poirot moment at the city council meeting
Librarians also have presentation skills, y’all

And this movie drags this out to the wire — complete with frantic texting and her brother knocking over the microphone stand to stall for time– even though there is zero suspense about what the outcome will be. (What I find most interesting during this bit are glimpses of the evidence Taylor was compiling on her laptop, including 1903 Montana weather maps and historical photos of 1900s Montana. Again, primary sources for the win!)

Here’s how Taylor’s Poirot moment goes down, complete with a slideshow, historic photographs, handwritten letters, diary entries, and official government documents:

Phyllis, city council chairwoman [to Craig]: Being old doesn’t qualify a building for landmark status. I’m afraid unless you have something new to add, you’re going to have to yield the floor.

Taylor [rushing into the community center]: I may be able to help with that! I think I may have found proof that shows that the Graff Hotel deserves to be a historic landmark. […] In April 1903, [the hotel maid] Mary Catherine had her photograph taken next to President Theodore Roosevelt in front of the Graff Hotel. 

Phyllis: Teddy Roosevelt was in Forest Ridge?

Taylor: That spring, he was at Yellowstone National Park to lay the cornerstone of the Roosevelt Arches, which still stand at the north entrance today. Teddy loved this part of the West more than anything, so he decided to stay and do a little bit more exploring. What nobody was expecting was that it was going to be the coldest spring on record. A freak snowstorm rolled in, leaving three feet of snow, leaving Teddy and his entire crew stranded just outside forest Ridge. By the time that the party made it back into town they spent three nights at the Graff Hotel until the roads were clear.

Phyllis: And you have proof of all this?

Taylor: I do, actually. Right here, I have a diary entry from Roosevelt. He kept one most of his life, and in April 1903, he wrote: “Snowed in at a little scrappy town called Forest Ridge. Beautiful country. Good and amiable folk. Stayed at the Graff Hotel. Best three nights of sleep in years…

But it wasn’t just the Graff that inspired him. It was… Forest Ridge. It was Montana. It was this entire part of the country and its people and the culture that inspired him while he was snowed in. So, shortly after he went back to Washington, he decided to sign the Antiquities Act, which gave him and all the future presidents the power to preserve the beautiful country of ours so that future generations could enjoy everything that he had. By making the Graff Hotel a historic landmark, we are not only celebrating Roosevelt’s legacy, we are celebrating the spirit that makes this city, this country so special. Thank you.

The city council announces that they will be applying to the state of Montana for the Graff Hotel to be granted landmark status. The town erupts in applause, while Craig hugs his sister who just saved the hotel! Librarians are heroes!

As a librarian, I appreciate this scene because of its focus on research, but I suspect that not everyone does. This reviewer commented that “Some scenes take place only to deliver information rather than emotions.”)

This presentation lasts 3 minutes total, with 10 minutes remaining in the film, just enough time for Taylor and Joel to wrap up their supposed romance.

26. How historically accurate was all that?

A (fictional) diary entry about Forest Ridge by Teddy Roosevelt
They didn’t even try to match Teddy Roosevelt’s actual handwriting

I do appreciate how confident Taylor is in her Poirot moment — and the suspension of disbelief in how quickly she set up her laptop to project onto the big TV screen! — but you know I had to wonder, how historically accurate was her evidence? So yes, I paused the movie to spend time digging into the possibilities and online archives of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential papers.

So all in all, even if not totally historically accurate — I mean, Forest Ridge is a fictional town — then it is, for the most part, historically probable for the purposes of this film’s plot. A solid B, with marks off for the handwriting mismatch and fudging of the dates.

27. The real romance is not between Taylor and Joel.

The final few minutes of the TV movie try to create suspense about whether or not Taylor will stay in Forest Ridge and whether or not she and Joel will get together. For me, the ending didn’t hold much interest — except for when I realized there was a(n unintended?) love triangle. Before Taylor goes to the Harvest Ball, we learn that she has been offered the Seattle research librarian job again (“The library in Seattle called and they want me back”). A woman’s love story with primary sources… which archives will she choose, the Seattle reference library or the archives room of the Forest Ridge Public Library?

Taylor’s joyful face when she’s researching in the Forest Ridge Public Library archives sealed the deal, right? 😉

Taylor in the archives room
I love digitizing archives!

And my final evidence for the TRUE love story of a librarian and her primary sources is in the final closeup at the end: A framed photo of the couple kissing alongside framed primary sources, including the Teddy Roosevelt photograph and historical letters!

The final shot of the movie, framed photographs and letters
The photograph of the kiss is the smallest frame on this wall… just sayin’

28. Is Montana this ethnically diverse?

This TV movie did seem to be making an effort to make this small town in Montana quite ethnically diverse. Two Black Americans are serving on the city council, including Phyllis as the council chairperson; Craig’s family is multiracial; Craig mentions that Forest Ridge was his wife’s hometown; Craig works with a woman of Asian descent at the hotel; and there seems to be a racially diverse array of townspeople at the city council meeting.

An ethnically diverse audience at the city council meeting
An ethnically diverse audience at the city council meeting

I couldn’t help but wonder if Montana is this ethnically diverse? So I looked up the most recent census records for Montana, and per 2021 estimates, the White population in Montana totals almost 89%. The Black population in Montana clocks in at .6%. So it would seem that this TV town is more ethnically diverse onscreen than it would be in real life. But I also researched if there was a history of Buffalo Soldiers in Montana — Buffalo Soldiers were Black American soldiers during the Civil War and into the 20th century — and lo and behold, I learned that many of the Buffalo Soldiers resettled in Montana after the Spanish-American War and also served as the state’s first park rangers. Very interesting!

Although I applaud the attempt at onscreen diversity in this TV movie’s cast list, I also noticed that the people of color do not have distinctive backstories or experiences of their own. We only hear about Christine growing up in Montana because Craig mentioned it. We learn nothing personal about Taylor’s niece Zoe and perhaps how it feels to grow up biracial; she exists solely to set up plot points for Taylor. We learn nothing about Craig’s Asian co-worker. And Joyce’s main function seems to be to react to Taylor’s research findings. Everyone is very pleasant to each other, and there are no overt racist acts, but it’s like the TV movie is striving to be colorblind. They don’t mention race at all. It’s like “Montana nice,” ultimately making the onscreen diversity very surface-level… only skin-deep, so to speak.

As Ibram X. Kendi, who wrote the 2019 book How to Be An Antiracist, stated in an interview:

People who say they don’t see race are, “not seeing the diversity of humanity, whether that diversity is about skin color, or hair texture, or culture.”

I also cannot help but recall Sandra Oh’s comments in a recent interview in People and how her words also apply to this movie:

Progress is not sticking a bunch of people of color [into a show or movie] and having them speak like everyone else.

29. This movie is NOT a “winter romance”

On a lighter note, I’m assuming that this TV movie’s title got rebranded to A Winter Romance because of the popularity of Christmas-themed TV romances during the end-of-year holidays. But it’s clear throughout the film that “An Autumn Romance” is a much more appropriate title. I mean, the central social event in the movie is the “Harvest Ball,” for goodness sake, and each set is drowning in orange-and red-colored leaves, pumpkins, and sunflowers.

Autumn decorations for the Harvest Ball
I thought I was starring in a movie called “An Autumn Romance”

30. These librarians have style

I also have to point out how every librarian in this TV movie has their own distinctive style.

I love the patterns and bright colors here in this screenshot from the Seattle research library:

Three librarians onscreen at the same time! They are also stylish in their own ways, in either bright colors or dynamic patterns.
Three librarians onscreen at the same time! They are also stylish in their own ways, in either bright colors or dynamic patterns.

Joyce sports long necklaces and free-flowing silhouettes throughout the movie, including in her black floral evening wear at the Harvest Ball:

Joyce at the Harvest Ball
I would wear Joyce’s black floral caftan and long gold pendant necklace

And Taylor rocks amazing coats and jackets throughout the movie:

I will definitely have to add to my stylish female reel librarians post one of these days!

31. Was this movie good? It doesn’t really matter.

This movie has quite a few positives, including several library- and librarian-focused scenes that I have rarely seen onscreen, including the repeated joy Taylor expresses when researching and looking through historical documents and primary sources. And the fact that Taylor is a librarian is absolutely critical to this movie’s plot, which is why it ends up in the Class I category of films.

There are also several negatives, which I’ve detailed in this post, including the surface-level view of librarian qualifications as well as the missed opportunities to explore the community’s diversity. The screenplay is super predictable, and the central romance between Taylor and Joel is not very compelling.

Do these positives and negatives cancel each other out? Is this a good movie? No, not really. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. I do not begrudge people who watch and enjoy this kind of lightweight romance, especially in these turbulent, stressful times. But perhaps highlighting my own thoughts and questions and research tangents that came up while I was watching this movie can spur some deeper thoughts and questions — and research explorations! — of your own.


Have you seen this TV movie? Do you like this kind of post? Would you like to see more of these stream-of-consciousness types of posts? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Lovecraft Country’s ‘A History of Violence’ and segregated libraries

“The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest”

One of my favorite TV series last year was Lovecraft Country (2020), a horror drama series developed by Misha Green, a Black American screenwriter, producer, and director. This Emmy-winning series, based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff and produced by Jordan Peele, was one of the most innovative, compelling, and groundbreaking TV shows I’ve seen in awhile. It wasn’t a perfect series — the pacing was all over the place, for one — but watching this show was an exhilarating experience! And I’m not the only one who loved it. The show earned 2 Emmys this past September: Courtney B. Vance won Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for his role as George Freeman, and the series also won for Sound Editing. Among the show’s 16 other Emmy nominations: Outstanding Drama Series, Writing for a Drama Series (Misha Green), Lead Actress in a Drama Series (Jurnee Smollett as Letitia “Leti” Lewis), Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Jonathan Majors as Atticus “Tic” Freeman), Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Aunjanue Ellis as Hippolyta Freeman), and Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (RIP, the iconic Michael K. Williams as Montrose Freeman).

And although it was reported in February 2021 that showrunner Misha Green was working on a second season, HBO (inexplicably) cancelled the series in early July 2021. Worst of all, they cancelled the series shortly before the show earned the 18 Emmy nominations that I mentioned above. For shame, HBO. For shame. We need innovative, creative, diverse shows like Lovecraft Country!

As detailed in a Rolling Stone article:

“The series follows Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) as he joins up with his friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father (Michael Kenneth Williams),” HBO said in its synopsis for the series, which premieres in August [2020]. “This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a Lovecraft paperback.”

From “‘Lovecraft Country’: See First Trailer for Jordan Peele-Produced HBO Horror Series” by Daniel Kreps, Rolling Stone, 1 May 2020

Here’s a look at Episode 4, “A History of Violence,” which includes a scene in a library!

Lovecraft Country: Season 1 Episode 4 Promo | HBO” video uploaded by HBO, Standard YouTube License

Library scene in Episode 4, “A History of Violence”

There are a LOT of different threads and characters in this series, so I’m not going to be able to summarize this episode very well. I mean, I’ve watched the entire series, and even I found the recap of this episode hard to follow! Before this episode, we had earned that Titus Braithwhite, a slave trader, had founded a secret occult society of (White, male) wizards called the Sons of Adam. In the beginning of this episode, Montrose learns where some pages from the Book of Names are located, and Tic does some research on Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam.

At 6 minutes into the show, Leti — having learned some startling news about Tic — stomps up the stairs to the Southside Colored Library to confront him. Although this part of the episode is set in Chicago, we know that this is a segregated library by the sign and name. Again, this show finds ways to reiterate that segregation and racism extended beyond the American South.

The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of "Lovecraft Country"
The exterior of the Southside Colored Library, as seen in Episode 4 of “Lovecraft Country”

The outside of the library looks very traditional, with the red brick and white detailing. (I was not able to find out where this scene was filmed. If you know, please leave a comment and share!) Inside, the traditional feel continues, with dark wood tones, book-lined walls, and a fireplace. A portrait of Carter G. Woodson, a well-respected Black American historian, author, and journalist, watches over the library from its perch above the fireplace.

In the screenshot below, we can see a “Quiet Please” sign by the door, and we also glimpse the back and shoulders of a Black woman librarian at the central wooden counter, checking out books to a young Black man. (Both seem to be uncredited in the cast list.)

A bird's-eye view of the library and reel librarian
A bird’s-eye view of the library and reel librarian

As Tic comes back to a table loaded with books, Leti confronts him — and earns the ire of a young boy (Ian McKay as “Cute Kid in Glasses”) who’s reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, a classic science fiction novel by Jules Verne.

Leti: Answer me.

Young boy: Shhhh.

Tic: Could you calm down?

The young boy shushes them!!! And the book he’s reading? It totally foreshadows the adventure we’re about to see in the rest of the episode. It’s too cute — I’m dying, y’all! 😀

As film critic Steffan Triplett wrote:

Give the boy in the library a YA spinoff!

Lovecraft Country Recap: Disappointment Above, Disappointment Below” by Steffan Triplett, Vulture, 6 Sept. 2020
A young boy shushes Leti and Tic in the library
Shhhhh! I’m reading Journey to the Center of the Earth, which foreshadows the rest of the episode!

Ok, back to the episode!

Tic takes Leti to the stacks so they can talk. (We can just spy the young boy seated at the table in the background. I feel that both he and Carter G. Woodson are keeping a watchful eye on them!) Tic and Leti discuss Christina Braithwhite, a descendent of Titus Braithwaite, who is protected under a spell of invulnerability.

Tic and Leti converse in the library stacks
Can you feel that kid’s eyes on me? He’s gonna shush us again!

During their heated, yet hushed, conversation in the library stacks, Tic reveals why he’s at the library — that through research, he’s trying to figure out a way to stop Christina. Leti then stalks back to the table to look at the books that Tic has gathered.

Leti: All right. So what’s all this got to do with her? Go on, tell me.

The young boy then scrapes back his chair, stands, and throws his book down in disgust as he rolls his eyes and walks off. EPIC. This kid knows how to steal a scene. He says so much without saying a word.

Leti and Tic continue their conversation, as she picks up books and looks through them. They discuss the lost Book of Names and a vault that Titus Braithwaite kept his pages in.

Tic: If I can get my hands on those pages, I can learn the Language of Adam and start casting some spells of my own to protect us. 

Leti: Okay. So where’s this vault?

Tic: I don’t know. I’ve been reading everything I can on Titus to try and find a clue. [Leti starts looking through the books on the table.] I might have to go back to Ardham.

Leti: And what? So you can excavate something out of the rubble? They teaching colored boys paleontology in the army now? You need to talk to your father.

Tic: No.

Leti: He probably did all this research and more once he got wind of your mama’s connection.

Tic: I don’t want him involved, or you either, for that matter. [He takes the book out of her hands.] Go home.

Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library
Leti and Tic discuss research leads in the library

Leti leaves, and Tic looks at the book she was holding. That’s when he spies the check-out card in the front, where “Montrose Freeman” name is written. He then checks other books, and sure enough, Montrose’s names is in those books, as well.

How does Tic react to the realization that Leti was right, and that his father, Montrose, has done all this research already?

Tic: Shit!

Cute Kid in Glasses: Shhh!

I was laughing so hard, y’all! I mean, can’t a kid just read a book in peace?! I know it plays into stereotypes that libraries are quiet tombs, rather than the not-so-quiet centers of community they are in real life, but it’s. just. too. cute.

And the production design and cinematography in this show is top-notch excellent. This boy and his book, set against the backdrop of these card catalog drawers? Chef’s-kiss perfection!

The young boy shushes Tic for a second time in the library!
I said, Shhhhh!

This library scene ends at 9:43, so the scene lasts in total for 3 1/2 minutes. And it is an efficient 3 1/2 minutes, as they cram in a lot of exposition — and humor!

Although we only see a glimpse of the reel librarian from behind, it’s clear that this library serves the role of Information Provider, as she helps establish the library setting. The role appears to be uncredited in the cast list.

Although we don’t see this reel librarian doing much — I mean, the patrons are shushing each other! — I loved this critic’s take on this scene and the library’s collection:

In a whirlwind of world-building and backstory downloading, Tic and Leti meet up in the Southside Colored Library underneath a portrait of Carter G. Woodson to do some research on Titus Braithwaite and the Sons of Adam. I love the idea that this random Chicago library has a huge, extensive section on White Magical Racism. Look, I love libraries and librarians but I do have some questions about the idea that Tic just rolled up to the information desk and was like “Good afternoon, I’m looking for any journal articles or published works relating to a secret society of white men who are trying to destroy the Black race through time travel” and the librarian was like “Oh, that again? There’s a whole shelf dedicated to it next to the Farmer’s Almanacs.”

But, libraries are magical in their own right and Tic and Leti get the information they need.

A Scaredy-Cat Recap Of Lovecraft Country Episode 4: ‘A History Of Violence‘” by R. Eric Thomas, Elle, 7 Sept. 2020

A history of segregated libraries & what this scene reveals

Although I found this scene quite humorous — the rest of the episode gets real dark, real fast — it’s important to note the serious undercurrents this scene reveals and reiterates.

As Sabrina Reed points out:

Lovecraft Country has unrelentingly made the point that Jim Crow’s reach went further than the South and actually encompassed the Midwest and the Northeast as well. […]

The existence of the Southside Colored Library in Lovecraft Country speaks to the segregation prevalent within the American Midwest … Here, Black library patrons can access information or read at the leisure. While the building is not spacious and the collection isn’t vast — Leti makes a quick circuit of the library in mere seconds before finding Tic — the Black citizens of Chicago’s Southside are fortunate in that it they at least have a library. […]

The history of libraries is one rife with a continuous reckoning and evolution stipulated on who has access to information, who is allowed in the room, who is allowed on the stacks, and whose work is displayed, recommended, and purchased for distribution. It’s a history that moves toward increased equity even if progress is slow or hampered by old schools of thought. But, like American history overall, racism and racist practices under the guise of betterment still permeated library institutions.

Lovecraft Country fact vs. fiction: Segregated public libraries” by Sabrina Reed, Fansided, 8 Sept. 2020

While thinking about and writing this post, I couldn’t help but also think back to a post I wrote earlier this year, about the ‘The African American Struggle for Library Equality: The Untold Story of the Julius Rosenwald Fund Library Program’ video lecture presented by Dr. Aisha M. Johnson for the Augusta Baker Lecture Diversity Series. In this lecture, Dr. Johnson detailed how “Being a librarian was something of honor for the African American community.” Again, a reminder of how much representation matters, onscreen and off.

Have you watched Lovecraft Country? Did you remember the library scene in Episode 4? Did the “Cute Kid in Glasses” make you smile? Please leave a comment and share!

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

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!)

Dorothy Vaughan and her sons walk up the side entrance to the public library
Dorothy Vaughan and her sons walk up the side entrance to the public library
Dorothy Vaughan browses the bookshelves as her sons read to each other
Dorothy Vaughan browses the bookshelves as her sons read to each other

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.

A closeup of the White Librarian
A closeup of the White Librarian
Dorothy Vaughan and the White Librarian speak through the stacks
Dorothy Vaughan and the White Librarian speak through the stacks

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.

The Vaughans are kicked out of the Hampton Public Library
The Vaughans are kicked out of the Hampton Public Library
A Black mother and a White mother exchange glances in and out of the library
A Black mother and a White mother exchange glances in and out of the library

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)

Dorothy Vaughan explains "good trouble" to her sons
Dorothy Vaughan explains “good trouble” to her sons
Dorothy Vaughan reads from the Fortran book she took from the library
Dorothy Vaughan reads from the Fortran book she took from the library

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

A reel librarian’s multi-faceted role in ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (2013)

I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own.

Related post: Banned books in ‘Beautiful Creatures’

The 2013 movie Beautiful Creatures — not to be confused with the 2000 British film of the same title, which starred Rachel Weisz — is an adaptation of the 2009 YA novel written by authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. Richard LaGravenese, an American of Italian descent, both adapted the novel for the screen and directed the film. I first checked a DVD of this movie out from my library a few years ago, but the DVD was so scratched that I couldn’t finish the film or follow the plot very well, since the DVD kept getting stuck or skipping past entire scenes. I had a vague idea that Viola Davis played a librarian, but I couldn’t determine the extent of her role. Therefore, when I saw this movie come up in my local public library’s Hoopla streaming service recently, I pounced on the chance to rewatch it.

Here’s the description from Hoopla:

“Based on the New York Times best-selling young adult novel, this hauntingly intense coming-of-age story about two teenage star-crossed lovers in a small South Carolina town who uncover dark secrets about their families, their history and their town has been adapted by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King).”

And here’s the trailer:

“Beautiful Creatures (2013) Official Trailer [HD]” video, uploaded by Roadshow Films, Standard YouTube license

My initial thoughts after finally being able to watch the movie all the way through? It is a frustratingly disappointing film, especially as you can see the level of talent involved and how it could have been so much better than the film ended up being. It really seems to be trying SO hard — too hard — to be an epic love story and build a foundation for the rest of the Caster Chronicles series. For me, the two leads — Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan Wate and Alice Englert as Lena Duchannes — were just not compelling enough to carry the film, which was promoted as a “supernatural love story.” Ehrenreich seemed to be over-acting, while Englert seemed to be going for mysterious but landed on sullen. Also, having grown up in the American South myself (in the eastern side of Texas, which has a different kind of accent from other parts of Texas, let alone other parts of the South!), it grates on my nerves when each actor speaks with a different kind of Southern accent.

Viola Davis, who gets 4th billing in the cast list, does indeed play a librarian — and a reel librarian of color, as Davis is a Black American actress — and her role as Amma is VERY significant to this movie’s plot. Viola Davis always elevates each and every movie she chooses to invest her time and energy in, and in my opinion, she is far and away the best thing in this movie. Essentially, she is the only reason I would recommend watching Beautiful Creatures (2013), so I’m going to focus on her role in this post. Yes, I am biased in my love of Viola Davis, as well as in my love for librarians. #NoRegrets

Spoiler alert

There is no possible way I can adequately explain all the details and different relationships and characters relating to this book and the series. To get the gist and familiarize yourself with the main characters, I recommend visiting the write-ups on Wikipedia about the book and the movie version. And to delve into Amma’s reel librarian role, which is integrated throughout the entire film from beginning to end, I have to reveal major plot secrets.

You have been alerted to major spoilers. Let’s continue, shall we? 😉

A reel librarian’s role change

I have not read the original source novel, so I was unfamiliar with the world and characters of this series. In my prior post, I mentioned that Viola Davis’s role as Amma had been changed from a maid to a librarian, but it’s more complicated than that! It’s actually a merging of two different characters from the book:

  • Amarie “Amma” Treadeau: A grandmotherly figure to Ethan, as she was Ethan’s nanny and the family’s cook and maid, as well as a Seer who can communicate with her ancestors
  • Marian Ashcroft: The public librarian librarian (and librarian of the secret Caster libraries), as well as the best friend of Ethan’s late mother

The cinematic history of Black actors playing maids and other domestic servants is really complicated and sensitive, because it connects to and reflects the very real history of slavery in the U.S. and the painfully enduring effects of systemic racism. This is a subject for a book (e.g. A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation by Greg Garrett, 2020), but below are quotes from two Oscar-winning Black actresses that demonstrate the differences (and progression?) of perspectives on this issue this past century.

  • Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an Oscar in 1939 when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, faced criticism from the Black community, including the NAACP, for playing servant roles. McDaniel reportedly responded, “Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making $7 a week being one” (as qtd. in Garrett, p. 53).
  • Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2016 for her role as Rose Lee Maxson in Fences. After starring in 2011’s The Help in the Oscar-nominated role of Aibileen Clark, Viola Davis had “no intention of playing a domestic worker ever again” (Johnson). In a 2013 interview, Davis said she “was glad that the maid aspect of Amma was dropped from the film adaption.” Davis went on to say, “This is a total re-imagining of the character, and I like it. I’m going to be confident and bold and say I like it because […] this is 2013, and I think that when black people are woven into the lives of characters in 2013, then I think they play other roles than maids. I think that that needs to be explored” (Ford).

Atypical reel librarian

When I initially watch a film to analyze it for its portrayal of librarian(s), I always begin by jotting down notes as scenes unfold in chronological order (with a lot of pausing to get quotes correctly written down). That way, I get a sense of how important the librarian role is to the film as the plot progresses. And I often continue this basic structure in my analysis posts, where I detail each major scene with a librarian or library setting, and then sum up the purpose of the reel librarian role at the end. But that structure did not seem to make sense when I thought about how to put together this post. First of all, Amma is onscreen throughout the film in dozens of scenes. But most significantly, Viola Davis’s portrayal of Amma transcends easy characterization, as she is so multi-layered. As written, it makes sense that Amma is a more complicated character, as two characters in the book were merged together in this cinematic role. But Davis infuses Amma with much more depth; she has shared in several interviews that she did a lot of research about Black history and narratives for this role, and “Even if you didn’t see so much of it, it informed me, in a way” (Radish).

I argue that Amma’s role in this film is much more than that of an Information Provider character type. We are treated to so many sides to Amma’s character in this film that I believe this role falls into the Atypical character category, a(n imperfect) classification I use to denote portrayals that do not conform to type, i.e. characters with enough screen time to allow viewers to witness more fully rounded characterizations and glimpses of their personal life. Therefore, in this post, I will delve into Amma’s character and purpose through the different sides of her personality that we get to witness in this film.

Amma’s nurturing side

The first facet of Amma’s personality we see is her nurturing, maternal figure side. This makes sense, as it seems that Amma’s primary role in the source novel is to be a surrogate mother to Ethan, whose biological mother has passed away. In the film, she also shares that she promised Ethan’s mother that she would take care of him, and more importantly, that she wants to.

At 4 minutes into the film, we get our first visual introduction to Amma, as she walks into Ethan’s house and refills the refrigerator with groceries. She asks him, “Is that what we’re wearing our first day of school?” while bending down to kiss Ethan on the top of his head. She asks after his father; we never actually see Ethan’s father, who seems to have retreated from the world after his wife’s death. (Is this an early signifier of White privilege, that a White man is able to hide from the world and his responsibilities and trust that his wife’s friend, a Black woman, will take care of running his household and raising his son? Discuss.)

In our first glimpse of Amma, she greets Ethan with a kiss on his head, a motherly gesture of affection

We also see how maternal Amma is to Lena. At 90 minutes into the film, Lena learns the disturbing truth of how to break the curse that’s been placed on her family for generations, and Amma pulls Lena in for a comforting embrace.

Amma embraces Lena in the Caster Library

Amma: Lena, talk to me. 

Lena: There’s only one way to break the curse. Genevieve [an ancestor] used the forbidden spell. To give life to the one she loved. To break the curse, the one that I love has to die. 

Amma: Oh, God. What are you gonna do? 

Lena [reflecting words Amma had said to her earlier]: I won’t hurt Ethan. Never. They’re only our words, Amma. They can’t explain everything. There are all kinds of ways someone you love can die. 

In the next scene, we see the effects of Lena erasing Ethan’s memories of her and their love. Ethan wakes up to Amma, once again, refilling their refrigerator with groceries. As they talk, Amma realizes what Lena has done and that Ethan no longer remembers his relationship with Lena. This minute-long scene is a showcase for Davis’s acting skills. Her face freezes and then drops ever-so-slightly as we feel the devastation of her sadness, as well as Amma’s struggle to maintain her composure for Ethan’s sake. And in the next scene, Amma takes Ethan to church, again trying to comfort his soul — as well as her own.

Amma’s stricken face as she realizes Lena has erased Ethan’s memory of their relationship
Amma brings Ethan to church

At the very end of the film, Amma nurtures both Ethan and Lena. At 1 hour and 53 minutes into the film, Ethan is on his way out of town to tour colleges, but he stops off at the library to say good-bye to Amma, who is sitting at her desk behind the Circulation counter.

Ethan says good-bye to Amma at the public library before he leaves town
We get treated to Amma’s professional work space in the public library, squeeeeee!

Amma: You all set?

Ethan: Yep. We should be in New York by Thursday, if we make good time. We’re gonna go stay with Link’s cousin in Brooklyn.

Amma: Come here. [They hug.]

Ethan: I’ll call you as soon as I get in. 

Amma: You call whenever you can. 

On his way out of the library, Ethan sees Lena, who is seated at a table with a stack of books, and strikes up a conversation about the poet Charles Bukowski that mirrors another conversation they had at the beginning of the movie — only it’s obvious that Ethan still doesn’t remember their past relationship. After Ethan leaves, Amma comes over and places a consoling hand on Lena’s shoulder. She then walks over to the front door and turns over the Closed sign, to provide them some privacy.

Amma closes the library in order to comfort Lena, after Ethan leaves town

Amma’s protective/secretive side

Amma also is privy to secrets about the past, and she tries to protect and shield Ethan from knowledge that she feels could harm him.

For example, at 30 minutes into the film, Ethan wakes from another nightmare/vision, and he goes downstairs to their living room. There, he sees Amma sifting through a bookcase along one wall.

Amma and Ethan in his living room, which is filled with books

Amma notices a locket in his hand — which he found with Lena — and her face hardens.

Amma: Where’d you get that?

Ethan: I don’ t know.

Amma: Don’t lie to me.

Ethan: What’s wrong?

Amma: You listen to me. You go and bury that in Greenbrier and forget you ever found it.

Ethan: I never said I was in Greenbrier, Amma. 

This scene ends with no resolution, but we learn that Amma knows more than she’s telling!

At 71 minutes into the film, we return to that same living room, this time after Ethan and Lena have gone out on a movie date and experience a disturbing vision from the past that plays out on the movie screen.

Back at Ethan’s home, Macon, Lena’s uncle, and Amma explain the backstory about the family curse and that Lena’s mother, Sarafine, is not dead but instead practices dark magic as a Dark Caster. Lena gets angry at Macon for telling her that her mother, Sarafine, had been dead. Amma interjects, both figuratively and physically.

Amma [to Lena]: Lena! Our words, our language, cannot explain all that there is. There are other ways someone can die to us. 

Amma [to Ethan]: Sarafine’s using you. Macon’s right. 

When Macon then gets mad at Ethan, Amma stands between them, in order to literally protect Ethan. 

Amma’s no-nonsense side

I love that Amma also gets to show her no-nonsense side! She may be nurturing and protective, but she is no pushover. She does not suffer fools. In her calm, self-assured, no-nonsense way, she demands personal respect. Every time she calls out others on their disrespect, they immediately back down and apologize.

One example comes at 30 minutes into the film, at the beginning of that scene I first described above when Ethan wakes up and finds Amma shuffling their shelves of books.

Ethan: Oh Amma, what are you doing?

Amma: I’m looking for some books your mother had. I have to return them to the library.

Ethan then shouts at her, asking how he got back home. Amma blinks, and then calls him out.

Amma: Why are you shouting?

Ethan: I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma in her role as Seer. Macon joins her in her ritual to call upon her ancestors.

Amma: Macon, no danger better come to that boy [Ethan] because of your kind.

Macon: Yeah well, then you keep him on a leash!

Amma: What happened at Greenbrier?

Macon: I don’t know. Lena was hysterical. Boy was unconscious. I brought him home, called you. You’re the seer. You tell ME what happened!

Amma: This is the sacred place of my ancestors, you hear? You want some answers, you show me some respect. 

Macon: Yes. I apologize. 

At 77 minutes into the film, Ethan and Amma are back in the Caster Library (a secret underground library), while Lena reads a secret book of spells. Seemingly bored, Ethan touches a book, which shocks him with electricity. Without skipping a beat or even looking up, Amma calls him out.

Amma: What part of ‘you cannot touch it if you are not a caster’ don’t you understand? 

Like I said, Amma does not suffer fools. #TeamLibrarian

Amma and Ethan in the Caster Library. Ethan reads while Amma gets on with her work as the library’s Keeper.

Amma’s spiritual side

We witness Amma’s spiritual side through her role as Seer and her ability to communicate with her ancestors. From what I’ve read — again, I am not familiar myself with the book series — she can perform “Gullah magic,” and Gullah is the language of her ancestors. In an extended scene that begins 40 minutes into the film, we see Amma preparing for the ritual, spreading out a blanket and taking things out of her large bag. Macon joins her, and we learn that Sarafine, Lena’s mother, is still around and causing trouble, and that Macon is trying to protect Lena.

First, we learn that Amma is receptive to dark Caster magic.

Amma: I felt something tonight. I’ve been feeling something every night since you brought that girl [Lena] here. […] So you bring darkness to this town. I can feel it like a hand twisting my insides. 

Then we witness Amma’s ritual. She begins the ritual with offering of food to her ancestors.

Amma: Brought your favorites, Uncle Abner. Shrimp and grits. Fried oysters. And a coconut pie.

Macon: No wonder he’s no longer with us. 

Amma: Pay no attention to him, Uncle.

Then, she takes off her outer layers of clothing, down to her tank top. It’s an intimate moment made even more intimate by seeing the scarred markings on her shoulders and back. (Does anyone recognize the style of markings? If so, please leave a comment and share!)

Amma’s markings on her back and shoulders, visible during the ritual scene with her ancestors

Amma: Uncle Abner, we are in need of your intercession. Along with Aunt Ida and Auntie May, I humbly call upon your spirits. 

Macon: What are they saying?

Amma: Nothing yet.

Macon: Tell them they have to help us stop Sarafine.

Amma: Some things cannot be stopped. 

During this scene, she also admonishes Macon and alludes to how he — the leader of Caster families who were former slave owners — has a fraught history with her ancestors, who were former slaves.

Amma: You know, it wouldn’t break your face to ask for some help instead of expecting it, like your family’s been doing with mine for too many years. Now, don’t you roll your eyes at me. 

Amma calls to “Uncle Abner” in this scene, but I wondered how many generations of her ancestors she was calling to. I wasn’t the only one who wondered this! Here is an excerpt about this scene from a 2013 interview with BlackTree TV and reporter Jamaal Finkley. 

Jamaal Finkley: One of the lines I found interesting is when you were in this scene with Jeremy Irons, and you’re talking about your ancestors. Do you think as a community, as a film community, that we do enough to celebrate our ancestors? I’m not sure if you was referring to the Gullah people or just slaves in general and that aspect, but in that scene, do you think that we could do more as an entertainment community to celebrate those people that are our ancestors?

Viola Davis: As Black people? […] Absolutely. When I did this role, one of the things I really researched was the past. Who we [Black people] were in the Civil War, who we were before we even came into America, and I went back to the Yoruba tribe. Actually read a memoir from a man who was born and raised on the plantation I was born on, Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, South Carolina, and I think those stories are so interesting, they’re so complicated. The human beings, the people that we were in the past, the people that we are now, is interesting.

You can view the rest of this interview with BlackTree TV below.

“Viola Davis talks about honoring her history in Beautiful Creatures” video, uploaded by BlackTree TV, 2013, Standard YouTube license.

The spiritual side of Amma feels intrinsic to her character, and it is clear that Viola Davis took great care to root that spiritual side of her character in the traditions and stories of African and Black American culture.

Amma’s professional side

The final side we get to see of Amma is her professional side as a librarian. Although we learned early on that Amma is a librarian — Ethan reveals this 26 minutes into the film, when he shares that “maybe I’ll take over the library from Amma” — we do not actually SEE Amma in a library until the 80-minute marker, over halfway through the 124-minute movie. I kind of like that we get to see other facets of Amma’s character before we see her in her professional library setting. And we soon get double the library scenes!

After Sarafine reveals herself to Ethan — one minor spoiler I will not completely reveal — Ethan takes Lena to the Gatlin Public Library. Through the front windows, we can spy Amma under a “Circulation Desk” sign. Amma comes to the front door, where we can also see the library’s open hours.

Ethan: Amma, we need your help. 

Amma: Why come to me?

Lena: The way you talked about the locket, about the curse. Excuse me, Miss Amma, but I think you know more than you’re saying. 

Ethan: Please, Amma.

Amma: This isn’t the place you’re gonna find anything you need. Meet me in the back. 

They go down to the basement, where she opens a steel door. She opens a panel, which reveals an intricate lock, and she has a key. She then shares with them the secret Caster library and its history.

Ethan: This must run under the whole town. 

Amma: The whole country. Gatlin is like the capital of Caster America. It used to be under Washington, D.C., until Nancy Reagan made them move. She was the only mortal they were ever scared of. 

They go down a flight of stairs to a large room with books along the back wall and tables. Amma then reveals her role as Keeper of the Caster Library.

Ethan: Amma, why didn’t you tell us about this? 

Amma: A Keeper has to be asked.

Lena: A Keeper, as in you’re a …

Amma: The Caster Library has been the responsibility of seers like me for generations. [She glides her hand along a book podium.] Something I had no choice about either, by the way. And these books hold the histories of the casters from around the world, the laws that keep balance between light and dark. 

Ethan reaches out to touch a book. Amma educates him about manners (“Hey! Get away from that!“), and continues to educate us all about forbidden spells.

Amma: Macon comes here every day and reads every book he can for the forbidden spell. 

Lena: He found nothing? 

Amma: But you can do it. God gives us what we can handle, even if we don’t believe it ourselves. Close your eyes. See with your mind what you’re looking for, as if you’ve already found it. 

Another door opens and reveals a room containing a locked book on a pedestal. Once again, Viola Davis’s acting skills are on display, as she reveals a tiny, satisfied smile, as if to show to the viewer that Lena has passed a secret test.

Amma: I knew it. Book of Moons. It’s the most powerful book of the Otherworld. It’s as alive as you or me. Strongest of every spell, good and bad. 

Lena: Did Macon look through it?

Amma: No, he couldn’t. The book chooses who reads it. Its law is “like attracts like.” […] It won’t reveal itself so easy. A curse this dark takes its time showing itself. The dark will test you. 

Amma leads Ethan away, and Lena stays with the book, which slowly reveals itself to her. Time for a research and reading montage!

Amma and Ethan hang out in the Caster Library while Lena reads the Book of Moons.

It’s a treat that we get to see Amma be a professional in not one, but TWO, libraries. We see her professional work space in the public library, and we get to see her work with scrolls and old tomes in the Caster library. In the scene where she chides Ethan for touching a book even though he’s not a caster, she continues to impart wisdom as Ethan asks her questions.

Ethan: Were there casters in the Civil War?

Amma: Casters have been fighting alongside mortals for centuries, every war, every side. Just ‘cause they’re supernatural don’t make them any smarter. 

Ethan: You know, what I can’t figure, is you go to church every Sunday? How do you believe in all this and still believe in God? 

Amma: God created all things, didn’t he? It’s only men that go and decide which ones are mistakes. 

It’s clear Amma takes pride in her role as Keeper. I just can’t help thinking how difficult it must be for her to compartmentalize her dual roles as librarian. One of those roles is very public, while she has to keep secret her other role as the Keeper of the Caster library.

And that title, “Keeper” is revealing, isn’t it? It reinforces the (stereotypical) role of librarians as literal gatekeepers, shielding resources and knowledge from anyone until they are deemed worthy. And although Amma is proud of her role as Keeper, it is also clear that she works within a system that she is unable to change. (Is this yet another glimpse into her identity as a Black woman working within an oppressive and rigid system? Discuss.)

Amma’s style roots

I’ve been sharing screenshots of Amma throughout this post, and hopefully, you’ve been enjoying her AMAZING style. I love that her hairstyle, clothing, and jewelry all reflect her Black and African identity and culture. Amma comes across as very rooted in her personal identity, and that her culture — and her personal expression of that culture — help ground her. She experiments with patterns and colors, and her jewelry is always front-and-center. Amma is no wallflower reel librarian. As a Black woman in a South Carolina town that seems mostly full of White people (except at church), there’s no way she could visually blend in, even if she wanted to. And it’s clear she doesn’t want to blend in; rather, she seems to radiate joy and self-confidence in her personal appearance. I found myself looking for Amma in every scene, eagerly anticipating what amazing jewelry or pattern-mixing combination she would wear next. I will definitely have to update my “stylish reel librarians” posts, as Amma needs to be at the top of the list!

I also looked for interviews and info about the costume design choices. In this EW.com article, I learned that costume designer Jeffrey Kurland, who is Jewish, designed all the costumes and jewelry in the film. Here’s what he shared about designing Amma’s memorable style:

“Amma is a very spiritual person, so we decided that her African roots are seen in her spiritual longings and reflected in her wardrobe. There’s a good deal of color and the jewelry that she wears is very heavy and iconic,” says Kurland, who notes that most of the jewelry worn by Davis’ character jewelry is from a collection of pieces that he created. “The other pieces are from places like Morocco, Africa and Tibet. There’s a certain spirituality that I wanted to infuse into her look while also showing that she’s a woman of style.”

Jeffrey Kurland, “‘Beautiful Creatures’ costume designer on dressing the characters in the supernatural flick,” EW.com, 2013

Viola Davis also enjoyed rocking her natural hair texture in the role of Amma:

RADISH: Was it liberating not to have to wear a wig for this character?

DAVIS:  Yes, absolutely!

Viola Davis Talks BEAUTIFUL CREATURES, What She Discovered During Her Research, PRISONERS, ENDER’S GAME, and More,” Collider.com, 2013

However, the movie’s lighting was so dim most of the time that I couldn’t properly see what Amma was wearing! I found the lighting too dark overall — I guess they were going for moody? — and I’ve read before about how many cinematographers do not get properly trained on the best ways to light Black skin. I don’t know if that’s the case here — the film’s cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, is an award-winning French cinematographer who has worked with many directors, including with Denzel Washington when he directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) — but I thought that the lighting choices in Beautiful Creatures did not serve to highlight Viola Davis and her inner (and outer) luminosity.

To sum up, although I did not particularly like the film overall, I very much enjoyed Viola Davis’s multi-faceted and fascinating portrayal as Amma, a complex reel librarian role with powers of her own. There’s so much to unpack in this role and in Davis’s performance that I’m sure I have only scratched the surface. Have you also seen Beautiful Creatures (2013)? What did you think of the dual-librarian role of Amma? Have you read the original source novel or series? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

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