Film review: ‘Cesar Chavez’
Say “Cesar Chavez,” for instance, and a graying generation of Chicanos will remember the movement inspired by events in the fields of California in the mid-1960s.
Those born after the events portrayed in the movie “Cesar Chavez” might find them hard to take – maybe even too hard to fathom. But they happened.
Mexican-Americans in the Southwest had been battling discrimination in the United States long before Cesar Chavez dreamed of unionizing farm workers. The League of United Latin American Citizens was founded in 1928; the American GI Forum was founded 20 years later, but their efforts focused principally in urban areas.
Despite notable legal accomplishments, segregation of Latinos was still fairly common in the cities, and the plight of campesinos – farm workers – was even more desperate.
Wages and working conditions were deporable and had not changed in decades.
Chavez’s farm worker movement breathed new life into the Latino civil rights struggle. The farm workers’ strike galvanized efforts to organize people in urban barrios to take action, to vote and to speak up.
There is no inherent nobility in either poverty or in stoop labor. But Chavez and his followers nonetheless taught a nation that even the most humble crop picker should be treated humanely and paid something approaching a living wage.
The challenge facing director Diego Luna and the cast and crew of “Cesar Chavez” was capturing not only the times of the title character but the inspiration he provided. They succeeded admirably in capturing the times. Capturing the man proved to be more daunting.
Luna and actor Michael Peña, cast as Chavez, avoided the trap of portraying the labor leader as a saint. To do that would be pure caricature.
Chavez was human, after all, and was forced to balance the demands of his family and his cause. Attending to one meant that the other suffered. Peña and America Ferrera, cast as Helen Chavez, handle those scenes adroitly and with sensitivity.
The portrayal of that conflict is the movie’s strength and gives credibility to scenes depicting the farm workers’ struggle for recognition of their union and eventual triumph.
The movie is far from perfect. Rosario Dawson, cast as Dolores Huerta, could have been given more screen time.
Those who lived through the turbulence of the 1960s will most likely greet the film warmly. Younger viewers may become impatient with the lack of action.
Portraying a non-violent approach to correcting social wrongs accurately, however, means the film’s pace is as slow as the progress being sought at the time.
Given the magnitude of subject matter and limitations of budget, the film is a good, basic introduction of Chavez to a generation born after his heyday. The labor leader was only 66 when he died in 1993.
The movie is a reminder of what can be done and the times we live in are a reminder of how much more needs to be done to further the cause of human dignity Cesar Chavez championed.
Rated PG.Directed by Diego Luna. Cast includes Michael Peña in the title role, America Ferrera as Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta. General release March 28, 2014.
Arnold García recently retired as editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman after a career spanning 39 years there, 22 of them as editor of the newspaper's influential opinion pages. His distinguished career included reporting stints at the San Angelo Standard-Times, where he got his start, and at the American-Statesman. He is the winner of various journalism awards, including a Jose Marti Award for opinion writing and is currently the Publisher for Popular Hispanics magazine.