Film Review: Dolores

An unjustly neglected heroine of our time finally gets her due in this smart, spirited doc.
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Most documentaries about an 86-year-old living subject have a nostalgic, sweetly elegiac quality about them, but not Dolores, Peter Bratt‘s stirring film about eternal firebrand Dolores Huerta, who was one of the true architects  of the United Farm Workers, which unionized the largely Spanish-speaking field laborers in California in the 1960s over the strenuous and often violent objections of the far more powerful and connected men who employed them.

Her name may be unfamiliar to you, hardly one whispered with reverence like that of César Chávez, the recognized leader of this movement. The fact is that she was right by his side, often coming up with many of the publicity-making transgressions of their frequent protests. The basic reasons for her relative obscurity can be summed up in one word, sexism, and Bratt's film goes a long way towards righting this, unwilling to let her become another forgotten footnote in the life of a “great man.”

Huerta saw from childhood the racial and social inequities that existed around her, the low pay and dehumanizing work conditions which Latinos suffered. As a fledgling member of the Community Service Organization, she was already coming up with California legislation at age 25, followed by her co-founding of the Agricultural Workers Association, which eventually became the United Farm Workers. Nineteen sixty-five was that key year when the also discriminated-against Filipino farm workers initiated the famous grape strike, which found support from the Latinos. Completely committed and tireless, Huerta had a personal life that was just as interesting. She was twice-divorced and, although she had 11 children by three spouses, she rejected outright any notion of being a stay-at-home mom. Her cause-filled absences were a heavy price to pay, as some of her children, interviewed here, attest.

After Chávez's death in 1993, what is believed to be gender bias prevented Huerta from assuming the presidency of UFW after him, resulting in her leaving the organization altogether. She refused to quiet down, however, and made headlines ten years ago when, in a college speech, she uttered the words “Republicans hate Latinos." After a certain hesitation, she also embraced the women's movement, largely because of her friendship with Gloria Steinhem. Steinhem is one of the vibrant interviewees here, along with Hillary Clinton, Angela Davis, Luis Valdez and Art Torres, who provide added insight into this indefatigable, charismatic force of nature. I can attest personally to the force of her personality and intelligence, as I was lucky enough to be invited to an intimate meet-and-greet lunch for the film, also attended by staunch supporter Carlos Santana. Usually at such events, you have to jockey for position to have a few words or even a mere "Hello" from the star of the day. But Huerta locked eyes with me across the room and came over to me for a lovely chat that, however light, was marked by the one quality that has remained unchanged in eight decades: total authenticity.

Click here for cast and crew information.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that Dolores Huerta had children by César Chávez. Huerta did have four children with Chávez's brother Richard.