“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.” – Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez – Release date: March 28, 2014 / USA / PG-13 / Color & Black and White / 101 mins
By Edwin Pagan
There’s an instant knee-jerk tendency by critics to earmark a Latino-themed film as only being suitable or marketable to Hispanic audiences merely because the subject matter doffs its hat to Latino subject matter or historical experience. Worse yet, it’s simplistically folded into the nationalistic fabric at the core of its story, which in this case is Mexican-American/Chicano. Tragically these days, that becomes code for ‘foreign’ and an instant validation for negation. Does it even matter that the historical events in question are inextricably American? When is the last time you heard a reviewer say that a film steeped in French, Italian or German history would only appeal to moviegoers from those cultures? (Insert cricket sounds here)
Cesar Chavez, directed by actor-turned-director Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También / Milk / Elysium), made its premiere last month at the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale), and early mainstream press buzz pegged it as slow-going and an almost deity portrayal of the myth, instead of a passionate man dedicated to a noble cause. The film’s North American premiere took place at SXSW in Austin, TX on March 10th as part of its SXAméricas platform, where it was selected as the Audience Award Winner in the Narrative Spotlight category. What a difference a month – and change of locale – makes. Since then, the film has progressively faired much better as actual moviegoers have had an opportunity to see the film firsthand.
Chavez represents the second film for the actor-turned-director, and only his first feature-length project. And boy did he choose a doozy. As biopics go, Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez is far from being a rote historical after-school special. But neither is it the comprehensive historical account that a celebrated figure such as César Chávez warrants. But if you think that is a condemnation of the film, read on.
For one thing, Luna is quick to point out that his film is NOT a biopic all, and in that regard, he is correct. Cesar Chavez only chronicles a ten-year slice-of-life of the iconic titular labor organizer and civil-rights leader. Specifically, it covers a pivotal change in tactics during the late 1960s when the farm worker’s labor movement, under the leadership of Chavez and his allies – went from holding traditional placards aloft a-la-mano to also employing pinpoint boycotts as an effective negotiating tool, organizing 300-mile cross-country marches, and establishing a full-service credit union so that crop pickers and their families could borrow against during hard times and to help keep the wind under the wings of those willing to strike! Sound familiar? It should, since it’s an American story, as well as a universal one.
As a film, Cesar Chavez is anything but boisterous. There aren’t any grandiose “this is Sparta!” speeches or hyper sound-design ‘hits’ engineered to capture our attention. Instead Diego Luna plays to our intelligence rather than our senses. To his credit, he sought to corral the story instead of shooting for epic spectacle and shot the film in México in lieu of California, where production costs would have been too prohibitive. Visually, that decision adds to the film’s character that alternates between the green fields where the laborers toil to arid, dusty wind-blown panoramas – you can almost feel the lines in the faces of the working underclass echoing those same harvested landscapes. You can also sense their anxiety and aspirations. Thus Sonora stands in for Sacramento, circa 1966.
The film begins as Chavez has made a choice to leave the limiting confines of headquarters where tacticians hold out and take his mission of improved compensation and labor conditions directly to people most impacted by the injustice: the farm worker. As his message and methods gain hold and begin to prove costly to the agricultural barons, a network of wealthy landowners circle their wagons against his movement. At the center of this clique of growers is Bogdanovich Senior (John Malkovich). Unwilling, or incapable, of negotiating, he begins to import undocumented workers from across the border to fill in the holes with the cheap workforce.
Famed American mythologist Joseph Campbell posits the ‘hero’ as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” Cesar Chavez squarely fits into that mold. But heroism comes at a price. As morale takes a nose-dive among Chavez’ faithful, and with mounting altercations escalating between laborers and armed company security forces, he decides to engage in a peaceful hunger strike. The 25-day fast slowly begins to attract nationwide support of tens of thousands of agricultural workers and Anglo housewives, who join the boycott of the table grapes. As support for a living wage for farm workers expands, even U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy drops by to openly lend his voice. The mounting political and civic pressure, coupled with a long-lasting fiscal hemorrhage ultimately leads – as history has recorded it, to the negotiating table, but not before some arms are twisted and a few heads are busted.
Period pieces are some of the hardest to pull off. The scope of vintage props and set design alone can cripple a production. Add to this the limited budget of an indie project and you begin to suffer from aesthetic atrophy. Chavez shines best in its depiction of the mass demonstrations and dignified acts of civil disobedience that is captured in fine period detail in a kind of cinema-vérité style that seamlessly blends with the gritty, black & white documentary newsreel footage woven into it. And a special mention is due to cinematographer Enrique Chediak (127 Hours / 28 Weeks Later / The Faculty) on that front.
There’s an undercurrent of a growing rift between Chavez and his son Fernando (Eli Vargas), who legitimately feels put on the back burner in contrast to the struggle, but this sub-plot floats along without being fleshed out in any tangible manner. I would have also enjoyed a hint more of the flawed man as a measure of dramatic story arc.
It is clear that Diego Luna has a deep-seeded reverence for the legacy of one of the most respected Latino civic leaders in American history, and chose to steer clear of adding any salt to his memory. And perhaps that is at the crux of its minor shortcoming. You can’t alter the course of history, as well as the ingrained racist business slants of the grape/lettuce growing industry of Southern California by being a mild-mannered pushover, despite your adherence to nonviolent means. Chavez was both charismatic but forceful, and it’s well documented that Chavez sometimes resorted to strategies that were less-than-kosher to achieve his aims. But that innate passionate fire and unyielding drive is in short supply here.
The principle cast includes Michael Peña, who slips into César Chávez’ shoes for 101 minutes. Peña has been highly underrated as an actor, but mostly due to how easy he makes it look. Revisit any of his past performances and you’ll find that on second look he far exceeds the actual screen time he’s been given. In Cesar Chavez he walks through the role looking somewhat more subdued by the material than a contemplative leader. America Ferrar (Real Women Have Curves / Ugly Betty) plays Chavez’ wife Helen Fabela, a first-generation Mexican-American of modest means, self-proclaimed Chicana and labor organizer in her own right. But the script does not give her much to play with, but she does what she can to it fullest effect. Rosario Dawson (Rent / Sin City) plays an effective Dolores Huerta (who is second to no one) as hungry for the victories that will eventually land in their laps. You can see the passion in her eyes and body language. In regard to casting, this is the one role that seemed miscast in regard to type. On the acting end, however, Rosario nailed it, but somehow I kept being taken out of the moment by the visual contrast to the real-life “señora ¡huelga!”
The movie also contains a few memorable walk-ons, including Yancy Arias (Walkout / The Shooting Star Salesman) who makes a sprinkle of cameos as labor activist Gilbert Padilla. Yancy is always a charm to watch onscreen and never disappoints. Another is Wes Bentley as Jerry Cohen, UFW chief counsel. Others include Jacob Vargas and John Ortiz.
The bottom line is that our stories are not being told, and we are thirsty. Luna’s Chavez may not be the definitive story of the man we know Chavez to be, but it’s part of the untold story. And that alone is an accomplishment that should be supported if we are going to continue to see our sheroes and heroes depicted with respect on the silver screen from our own point-of-view.
¡Si se puede!
A Lionsgate, Pantelion,Televisa Cine and Canana film