It’s Time to Make The Epic Cesar Chavez Movie

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Diego Lunas’s Cesar Chavez Under Achieves at the Boxoffice

 By Bel Hernandez

I’m much more optimistic than those who may think that the future of Latinos in the film industry rests on the success or failure of one single film.  In particular I am talking about Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez distributed by Pantelion, which released theatrically a week ago on March 28th.

The marketing for the film included screenings from Fresno, CA to the White House in Washington, D.C.  In between it hit all grassroots Latino organizations.  Social media buzzed about going to see the film in the first weekend.  It looked promising. Still on opening weekend all these efforts yielded only $2.8 million at the boxoffice playing in 664 theaters.  Not a stellar showing.  Compared to Eugenio Derbez’s Instructions Not Included (also distributed by Pantelion), which made $7.8 million on opening weekend in only 348 theaters.  Cesar Chavez missed its mark by a wide margin.

This lackluster showing cannot simply be blamed on the critics.  Aside from the two top entertainment trades review, most media reserved their critique until after opening weekend. It seemed as if they were waiting, possibly out of respect for the memory of Cesar Chavez, until after opening weekend, then it was no holds barred.

The majority of the criticism was directed at the writing, or in some cases the lack-there-of, and story development.

 “Screenwriters Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Timothy J. Sexton (Children of God) approach events from a simplistic and overly reverential historical perspective.”   – Variety

“[The script is] lumpy…the labor leader gets routine treatment in this inert biopic”.  – The Hollywood Reporter

“It tells his story as a series of dramatic bullet points” – NY Times

“Missed opportunity to communicate the complex genius of a remarkable man.”  – L.A. Times Commentary by Miriam Pawel

“A new film about the labor leader reduces him to a caricature and ignores his true strengths as an organizer.”  – The Nation, Commentary by Marshall Ganz

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Cesar Chavez with Marshal Ganz

Harvard senior lecturer Marshall Ganz, worked alongside Cesar and the UFW for sixteen years.  He is credited with devising the successful grassroots- organizing model and the training for Barack Obama’s winning 2008 presidential campaign. In an excellent piece in The Nation Ganz addresses the lack of inclusion of key players in the farmworker struggle in Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez.

“It is too bad that the current biases of his family, who held a veto over script, and the unstated agenda of those who made and funded this film, seem to have shaped this interpretation of the man’s public work.”

So was it the family that hindered the story?  Was it the screenwriters or the filmmakers?

The great Mark Twain wisely said, “Write what you know”, in the case of Cesar Chavez the producers felt that Oscar nominated writers Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton would be the most qualified to tell the Cesar Chavez story.

Did the producers not think it necessary to hire at least one Latino writer?

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(L-R) Cesar Chavez, CSO organizer Fred Ross, Luis Valdez and Dolores Huerta

If an Oscar nomination was a factor, you have two eminently qualified Latino writers that fit the bill, Jose Rivera (Motorcycle Diaries) or Gregory Nava (El Norte) whose body of work has demonstrated their ability to tell award-winning Latino stories. Luis Valdez, an obvious choice, was never approached.  Valdez wrote and directed La Bamba, which for over 25 years was the highest grossing Latino themed film, a story about a former farmworker that went from agricultural fields to international stardom. Valdez’s groundbreaking film has grossed $54 million domestically. A close friend of Cesar’s, Valdez founded the world renowned El Teatro Campesino (The Farmworker Theater) right on the fields that served as a critical tool in spreading the word of the struggle from grape field strike lines to international stages.

When Ben Affleck played CIA technical operations officer Tony Mendez in Argo the outcry from the Latino community had social media buzzing and advocacy organizations crying foul.  In the case of Cesar Chavez not one Latino screenwriter was employed, but no one seemed to care.

But the writer’s perspective is important; it dictates the basis for what you see on the screen.  In this case the distance between the writers and the material is sadly obvious.

The perspective of how the UFW movement affected the 53 million U.S. Latinos, in particular the Mexicans who comprise nearly two-thirds (64%) of the U.S. Hispanic population is important, as Ganz points out in his article:

“The significance of the farm worker movement … and, in particular, as a spark for the broader Chicano movement, linking aspirations of a rising generation, like the young men and women who led the East Lost Angeles school “walk outs” in 1968 (as excellently portrayed in the HBO special of the same name), those who formed MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) in 1969 and others.”

Who are these U.S. Latinos?  They are a $1.2 trillion dollar annual consumer market. They are the largest movie watching demographic in the country, representing 18% of the movie going audience and purchasing 25% of the tickets sold.  So when you market a film about one of the most revered U.S. Latino civil rights leaders of our times to them, it must be authentic, have heart and have a well-funded marketing campaign attached.

Some have suggested on social media that Latinos should “Just be happy that they made this movie”.  As long as U.S. Latinos keep thinking this way we will continue to be marginalized.

In marketing the Cesar Chavez film U.S. Latinos were told they needed to support because it is about one of their heroes.  The burden of the success of Cesar Chavez was put squarely on the shoulders of U.S. Latinos. If the movie failed, it was intimated, it would be the U.S. Latino’s fault.

This is a lot to ask of this community, which was marginalized in the participation of the film and was minimally hired when the film went to Mexico to shoot. However, when it came to the marketing of the film, U.S. Latinos were asked to spend money at the boxoffice, because if just 10% of all Latinos in the U.S. went to see this film it would make $47.7 million at the boxoffice more than quadrupling the amount it cost to make ($10 million).

It is time U.S. Latinos realize and utilize their economic power. It is time to look into the viability of investing in the image of Latinos.  Time to make the films that reflect our stories, our perspectives.  Time to tell the countless untold stories and build up our Latino talent and our communities.

It is time to fund and make the epic Cesar Chavez movie he deserves.

Actor/writer/director Enrique Castillo also contributed to this article. Enrique was a farmworker from elementary school until his sophomore year in college.  He was a member of Luis Valdez’s El Teatro Campesino working alongside Cesar, Dolores Huerta, and the countless union organizers and farmworkers.