Film Review: Cesar's Last FastA reverential perspective on America’s renowned union founder and leader.
In the annals of American social-justice movements, United Farm Workers (UFW) co-founder Cesar Chavez is probably the only Latino whose name and reputation are widely known, making his life’s work ideal for in-depth treatment. Filmmakers Richard Ray Perez and Lorena Parlee’s long-gestating documentary on the famed labor-rights activist interweaves footage from Chavez’s near-legendary 1988 fast to protest the use of pesticides on grape crops with a chronological retrospective of his life and labor-organizing career.
The filmmakers’ intimate access to Chavez’s family members and union co-workers, along with a wealth of unique archival material, made the film a perfect Sundance pickup in a first-ever joint acquisition by Univision News and Participant Media’s Pivot cable network, to be broadcast simultaneously in Spanish and English versions later this year (perhaps not coincidentally following Pantelion Films and Participant’s recent release of Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez biopic).
Following his early life growing up in Arizona, Chavez’s family moved to California, working as migrant farmhands, which gave him the opportunity to experience and observe the hardships of the primarily Mexican and Filipino workers firsthand. His youthful life in the fields later led Chavez to co-found the National Farm Workers Association with activist Dolores Huerta in 1962. Informed by Catholic social teachings and personal faith, he began organizing laborers for better wages and working conditions; the organization later turned its focus to labor rights after joining Filipino farmworkers in a strike against California grape producers.
That historic 1965 strike led directly to the establishment of the UFW and the nationwide grape boycotts of the 1970s that eventually forced grape growers to sign contracts with the UFW and improve working conditions. Throughout the often confrontational labor strife, Chavez and the UFW insisted on using only nonviolent techniques, in much the same manner as the Civil Rights actions led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi before him. In 1975, UFW members were rewarded with establishment of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a statewide law that protects farmworkers’ right to unionize.
By the ’80s, Chavez’s attention had shifted to the indirect impacts of grape production and a cancer cluster affecting Central Valley children that was attributed to the growers’ use of toxic pesticides. His decision to undertake an indefinite water-only fast in 1988 at age 61 as an act of personal penance was more extreme than the fasting he’d done in the past. The protest attracted national media attention, particularly as it stretched toward and then past 30 days in duration and his health began deteriorating. When Chavez finally broke his fast at 36 days, the UFW staged his emergence from seclusion as a major labor organizing event, inviting members of the Kennedy family, actor-activist Martin Sheen and Jesse Jackson to participate, among other luminaries.
Writer-director Richard Ray Perez, a veteran doc producer and senior Sundance Institute staff member, inherited the project from the late Lorena Parlee, who died of breast cancer in 2006. Parlee had served as Chavez’s press secretary in the late 1980s and shot hours of amateur video during the labor leader’s epic 36-day “Fast for Life,” much of which had never been publicly released. This intimate footage became the basis for Perez’s Chavez profile, anchoring a wealth of archival photographic, broadcast, and home-movie and video materials, along with interviews with Chavez’s family members and labor-activist collaborators, including his surviving UFW co-founder and Latino labor leader Dolores Huerta.
Although thoroughly absorbing, the doc at times skirts close to hagiography—the filmmakers include only passing critiques of Chavez’s sometimes autocratic leadership style and personal conflicts with his collaborators. Critically, little information or perspective is provided on the incidence of Central Valley childhood cancers and the health and environmental impacts of the specific pesticides used on grape crops, an oversight that somewhat risks diminishing the significance of Chavez’s personal protest. These details are likely to be overlooked by enthusiastic viewers, however, ensuring that Chavez’s inspirational social-justice legacy continues to thrive.
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