‘Cesar Chavez’ is Stiff History of a Heroic Man

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CHICAGO – How can one man bring down a ruthless industry? By building a union that never backs down, because he never backed down. ‘Cesar Chavez’ depicts the United Farm Workers union organizer in the 1960s who sought justice against virtual slave conditions for immigrant labor, assuring his place in history.

The film doesn’t do much for the inner character of Chavez, realized in a contained performance by Michael Peña. It chose to go over the step-by-step history of the core of his vital work over a ten-year period. This decision makes the story a bit starchy, and goes over a lot of material in a short amount of time. It provides for the heroism of what Chavez was able to accomplish, but the man himself is not revealed within this accomplishment.

Conditions for the 50,000 farms workers in California during the early 1960s were akin to slavery – workers were imported from Mexico to pick the crop, but wages and living arrangements were stagnant. Organizer Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña) forms a labor union from this situation, the United Farm Workers, and begins the struggle for fairness and reform.

Michael Peña
The Title Hero (Michael Peña) in ‘Cesar Chavez’
Photo credit: Pantelion Pictures

Aided by lieutenants such as Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), Chavez takes his philosophy of nonviolence to the workers, and spearheads some major work stoppages, including the Delano (California) Grape Strike. This boycott on non-union picked grapes lasts five years, and includes violent opposition from the farm owners (represented by John Malkovich in the film) and a hunger strike from Chavez himself, who goes without food for 25 days.

Peña is a fine character actor, but in his portrayal of Chavez there doesn’t seem to be any feeling for Chavez’s inner life, only for his representation as leader of the movement. The handicap for the actor was the amount of material to cover in the timeline of the major strikes, and his presence goes from scene to scene without much essence for who the man was.

There is an attempt to portray his family life, but it seemed to be an afterthought among the larger issues. His wife Helen (America Ferrera) is shown to be dutiful and helpful, except when momentarily she isn’t, which is not fully explained – except for the fact that Chavez never is home. The real Chavez had a complex family situation, which included an estrangement from his oldest son. This is hinted in the film, with no real follow up.

The main theme in the biography is Chavez’s commitment to justice for workers and that gets a better depiction. This is vital history, and not too far off from our modern era and understanding. The immigrant issue goes on, and the use of expatriate workers in low wage jobs is still apparent. This was one of the first instances of exposing the exploitation, assisted by a crusading Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes), and a cause that becomes morality for the workers. Chavez is honored in the film at a saintly level for his contribution, which – like Dr. Martin Luther King – makes him more a symbol than a human.

Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson
Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) Helps Chavez Organize the Workers in ‘Cesar Chavez’
Photo credit: Pantelion Pictures

Another obstacle in the story is that it is a period piece, set in the 1960s, which unfortunately limits the settings and elements of recreating that period. The events are confined to the fields and obvious short supply of era-appropriate automobiles and housing, and it becomes a bit distracting in the process. Director Diego Luna (also a notable actor) does an admirable job keeping the narrative moving along, but it’s clear he’s handcuffed by time-and-place characteristics.

The goal for the filmmakers was to get the name of Cesar Chavez back into the public – and Chicano – consciousness. For that they succeed. For the rest of the story, a fuller research is necessary. The “whys” of Cesar Chavez are as important as the deeds of the man. For that, we need to go elsewhere.

“Cesar Chavez” has a limited release on March 28th. See local listings for theaters and showtimes. Featuring Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich and Jack Holmes. Screenplay by Keir Pearson. Directed by Diego Luna. Rated “PG-13”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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