SXSW FILM 2014
By Linc Leifeste | March 25, 2014
Director: Diego Luna
Writers: Keir Pearson (screenplay), Timothy J. Sexton
Starring: Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Michael Cudlitz, John Malkovich, Rosario Dawson
Heaven knows that Cesar Chavez is worthy of a first-rate biopic to tell his inspiring story, sharing how he suffered and fought to help insure farm workers’ rights and their dignity. Diego Luna’s heartfelt Cesar Chavez partially fits the bill. It looks big-budget great and has a talented cast yet it still somehow fails to bring the man himself vividly to life, even if at times it paints a compelling portrait of his movement and times. To be fair, biopics are hard to do really well and Cesar Chavez isn’t a failure as a film. But unless, like me, you have the good fortune of attending an enthusiastically packed premiere screening, with Luna in attendance for a post-screening Q&A that had more of the thrill of a rally with legendary labor leader/civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and Cesar’s son on stage joining the director on stage to lead the audience in chants of “Sí, se puede!” (a motto of Chavez’s United Farm Workers which means roughly, “Yes, it can be done!”), my guess is that the film might feel a bit flat.
Covering a roughly five-year-period, the film ably chronicles Chavez’s (Michael Peña) rise to power during the struggle to get California’s wealthy, white grape growers to the negotiating table to sign off on demands for improved conditions and fairer wages for the cruelly exploited minority workforce picking their grapes. The film begins with Chavez already being an activist and making a choice to uproot his family to return to the California fields he knows all too well, to begin the process of trying to rally the workers’ crucial support.
Along with his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and children, Chavez is joined by his equally committed collaborator Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) as they hold meetings an rallies, set up a credit union for the workers, hold protests and try to stand firm in the face of increasingly angry and organized push-back from the farm owners and their hired muscle (which include the local police force). As the power structure is threatened, they resort to more and more violent responses, hoping to goad the workers into violent confrontation, giving them excuse to crack skulls. There are those in the movement who, naturally, are more than willing to oblige but Chavez insists on the harder road of non-violence.
And maybe that’s part of the reason for the film’s occasional lack of energy, maybe it’s too much of a challenge for such a traditional, conservative film to capture cinematic magic in conveying non-violent movements and hunger strikes. And in its portrayal of the title character, it veers way too close to sanitized hagiography for my tastes. Written in concert with Chavez’s family, the closest we come to seeing a flaw is that his relationship with his children, particularly his elder son, is strained by all the time he is spending away from his family, fighting the good fight. But that, most of us would agree, is no flaw at all.
The good news is that this capable, entertaining film should put Chavez’s name back in the spotlight for a while, bringing much-deserved attention to a man and a movement that for too many has become simply a nearly forgotten footnote in a history textbook. And maybe, along the way, it will open the door to more film depictions of the man and the movement that feel as daring and bold as the subject matter.