Cesar Chavez (Michael) Pena) was a farm worker, a labor leader and renowned civil rights activist and co-founder, with Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), of the United Farm Workers union. His exploits to get farm workers a fair shake, though, was never told on the big screen – until now with “Cesar Chavez.”
Diego Luna, in his second film as director, gives an honest and accurate biography of a man that changed the lives of millions with his dedication to migrant farm workers in central California. A prologue explains why Chavez became such a strident labor activist – his parents were once prosperous farm owners but lost everything during the Great Depression and became farm workers.
We first meet Cesar in 1962 as he is working to get migrant workers to unite to get better wages and working conditions. Luna takes this as the starting point in telling of the remarkable man who only had a seventh grade education but became one of the icons in the American labor movement. “Cesar Chavez” covers the period through to 1969 when Chavez went on a 25-day fast to make his case for non-violent confrontation with the growers.
But, “Chavez” is more than just a history lesson on workers’ unions, strikes and boycotts. The filmmakers also show the strain that Cesar’s activism inflicted upon his family – wife Helen (America Ferrera) and their eight children. The impact on his family is personified with eldest son, Fernando (Eli Vargas), who must face harassment by other students at his school because of Cesar’s labor union practices.
The screenplay, by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, does not go into every detail of Chavez’s life during the years covered. Instead, key incidents are given full shrift from Chavez and Dolores Huerta forming the National Farm Workers’ Association (later named American Farm Workers union) to the 300 mile march that Chavez led from Delano, CA, to the state capital in Sacramento to protest the treatment of migrant workers by the wealthy farm owners and his historic fast for non-violence, much like Gandhi in his quest for India independence.
Michael Pena is solid in his portrayal of Cesar Chavez but it is not the star turner I had hoped for the versatile actor. The supporting cast is also quite good though few are given full dimension, like Ferrera as Helen Chavez or John Malkovich as the evil grape farm owner Bogdanovich who represents Chavez’s anti-union nemeses.
Cesar Chavez died in 1993 and it took over 20 years since to bring his story to the big screen. Diego Luna, fortunately, saw fit to tell us about the life and times of a great leader in the American labor movement. You can tell it is a labor of love. I give it a B-.
In 1962, a Mexican American who'd been a migrant farm worker at the age of 11 was working in L.A. as a civil rights organizer when he decided to pack up his wife and 8 children to return to Delano, California and form a farm workers association. He spent five years fighting powerful businessmen, the law and even Presidents of the U.S. in order to procure living wages and decent working conditions for his people. The man Robert F. Kennedy proclaimed an American hero was "Cesar Chavez."
Mexican actor Diego Luna picks up his director reins to shine a light on a hero of the American labor movement whom many know little to nothing about. Michael Peña ("End of Watch," "American Hustle"), an actor with a fine body of work who's never really gotten his due, has his first lead role. Unfortunately, although both do a solid job, neither's able to rise above the standard heroic biopic format where an almost saintly figure fights almost insurmountable odds to eventual triumph. It's basic story telling, a particularly necessary one in times where a living wage still eludes many, but it lacks cinematic invention and won't be the film to catapult Peña into the limelight.
After a voice over opening that intends to provide back story but is a bit jumbled as to where and how Chavez got to where he was in '62, the seed of familial sacrifice is planted as Helen Chavez (America Ferrera, "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") tries and fails to get her children's buy-in for a jolting move. This theme will be carried forward with the common conflict of a father working for the greater good not spending enough time with his kids, repped here by eldest son Fernando (Eli Vargas). But as far as setting examples go, Chavez never falters, the lone exception his objection to his wife's being fodder for arrest to engage media focus (he relents when FWU partner Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson, "Trance") backs her).
The farm workers are depicted essentially as slave labor, cowering in fear of field supervisors, with no hope of bettering their lives. For a while it seems that for every step Chavez takes, he's pushed back two. Strikes are broken with the importation of illegal workers and law enforcement intimidation enrages those he needs to keep cool heads (Chavez was a proponent of non-violent protest, undergoing a 25 day fast to bring opponents back into the fold). But he's canny, using the media, pamphleting and picketing to begin an effective boycott. When the Republican Administration arranged for the sale of grapes in Europe (archival footage of then Governor Reagan eating grapes is hissable), Chavez took his story there, dumping cartons of grapes into the Thames surrounded by media.
Screenwriters Keir Pearson ("Hotel Rwanda") and Timothy J. Sexton ("Children of Men") unfurl the events of Chavez's struggle in linear fashion, fleshing out his opposition with a different kind of father/son dynamic in grower Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich, "RED 2") and company heir John (Gabriel Mann, "The Bourne Supremacy"), pushed to throw his weight around when the tide's already turning, local Sheriff Galen (Michael Cudlitz, "Surrogates") having been publicly dressed down by Kennedy (Jack Holmes). The racism and illiteracy burdening both the Mexican and Filipino workers (Chavez joined forces with Filipino leader Larry Itliong (Darion Basco)) are addressed by Fernando's bullying, the writers filling in earlier blanks with Chavez's reminisces of similar treatment in the Army. A Spanish language weekly uses cartoons to speak to those who cannot read, Bogdanovitch recognizing their power, consulting his Mexican maid (whose presence in the room is, of course, ignored as his cronies hurl racial slurs, a chestnut at least as old as "Giant").
Peña is solid but doesn't find anything outside the biopic boilerplate to add to his character. The film is full of recognizable faces. Ferrera gives a strong performance as Helen, but Dawson's role is underwritten, as is Wes Bentley's ("The Hunger Games") as the FWU's lawyer. John Ortiz ("Silver Linings Playbook") reps the anger that threatens to tip the cause into violence.
In the end, Luna's gotten Chavez's story out there, but the film itself isn't special enough to get the message out to more than a core audience. More people might be interested if they knew that Chavez was the originator of Barack Obama's presidential campaign slogan (Yes we can), an interesting tidbit revealed here.
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