Film Review: Cesar Chavez

Well-directed and acted, and taking for its subject a worthy figure, Diego Luna&#8217;s <i>Cesar Chavez</i> is a solid addition to the biopic canon. The film should satisfy those looking for a faithful, though not hagiographical, depiction of the icon,

Cesar Chavez opens with the titular activist discussing an adolescence spent toiling as a farmworker in the fields of California, and the circumstances—terrible wages and working conditions and racism—that spurred his passion for social reform. This interview, later to be revisited, acts a narrative expedient: We move from its brief explanation of Cesar’s personal beginnings into a flashback that illustrates his beginnings as a political force. It’s a transition that establishes the conflict many great men have suffered onscreen, that of the blurring between private and public life. We then cycle back several years and watch as Cesar (Michael Peña) argues with his amiable but hesitant boss at the Community Service Organization, Fred Ross (Mark Moses), about the need to “get their hands dirty” and do more for the country’s farmworkers. Cesar eventually decides to leave the CSO and form a union for the farmworkers himself, taking co-worker Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), his wife Helen (America Ferrara) and his eight children back with him to California.

Diego Luna’s film concerns itself with the events of the next five years, as Cesar and many others, including Dolores, Helen, Fred Ross, Cesar’s brother (Jacob Vargas) and, later, a hippie lawyer (Wes Bentley) agitate on behalf of the farmworkers. They run an upstart credit union out of the Chavez family garage in an effort to gain followers; they print a weekly newspaper that illustrates their points with cartoons in lieu of articles their illiterate demographic would be unable to understand; they recruit guerrilla-style, visiting farms and reasoning with workers as the workers pick grapes; they organize a successful national, and later, international boycott. But Cesar and company have their work cut out for them. Not only are many of the workers afraid to speak out, the powerful white growers, a man named Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich, who also executive produces) foremost among them, are determined to keep them that way.

At its best, Cesar Chavez depicts stirring scenes of injustice and political action. Watching Cesar, Helen and their followers as they are corralled by a horde of trucks into the center of a field, like cattle, and shot with pesticides, makes the audience flinch in uncomfortable sympathetic accord. Watching Helen repeatedly scream “Huelga!,” the Spanish word for “strike!” the draconian law enforcement has ruled illegal, is every bit as stirring as watching a 13th-century Scotsman yell for his freedom—if not more so, because Helen looks frightened as she does it, and does it anyway.

Where the film falls short is in its quieter moments, during which its lack of full-bodied supporting characters becomes readily apparent. The exception belongs to America Ferrara’s Helen. A fierce champion of both her family and her cause, Helen is tough, empathetic, pragmatic, loving and unyielding—a fine complement to Peña’s fine and understated Chavez. As the only other female figure, however, Rosario Dawson is wasted as Dolores, a real-life force who co-founded the United Farm Workers union alongside Chavez. Equally unable to ignore her influence as find a place for her in its narrative, Cesar Chavez leaves Dolores with little to do but agree with Cesar and Helen in their turn, occasionally offering a timely piece of advice and also, occasionally, yelling “Huelga!” Wealthy farm owner Bogdanovitch is not as two-dimensionally racist as the town sheriff (Michael Cudlitz), but his repeated insistence that he is also a foreigner and an immigrant (from Eastern Europe) yet falls short of inspiring sustained ambivalence on his behalf. He is a bad guy with a dim whitewashed son, the kind of privileged offspring against whom you don’t so much want to wield a weapon as a colored marker, the better to color him in, in more ways than one.

The subplot involving Cesar and his growing estrangement from his son Fernando (Eli Vargas) illustrates the peculiar problem with this otherwise competent production. No doubt there was conflict between father and son, as the one worked for the good of the people and the other simply wanted to be regarded as an important person in his father’s life. The real Fernando published a letter to this effect on Father’s Day, 1980. Yet the film’s attempts to show the emotional damage public work wrought on Cesar’s family life feel familiar and rote. The movie sags when Chavez is called upon to advocate non-violence as the best means for dealing with a racist bully at Fernando’s school, as it does during a scene of attempted reconciliation when Chavez turns preachy and Fernando sullenly asks, “Why do you always have to turn everything into a lesson?” In its bid to make Chavez seem more human, the film’s father-son scenes remind us we are indeed watching a movie version of a human—specifically, a movie about a great human in the vein of, say, Lincoln.

The moviefaction of Cesar Chavez’s life ultimately turns a fascinating account into a standard biopic tale. Frequent glimpses of archival footage in fact serve as an unintentional reminder that the film’s subject may have been better served in a documentary. As luck would have it, the doc Cesar’s Last Fast comes out this spring. It will be interesting to see how its portrait of Cesar Chavez measures against this well-done if familiar take on an icon.