“Cesar Chavez” is a Mexican-American “42,” a quietly inspiring and well-acted
tale of a civil rights icon whose story isn’t nearly as familiar as Jackie
Robinson’s. But then, Chavez wasn’t a ball player. He was a union organizer. And
while Robinson, with some reluctance, had nobility and greatness thrust upon
him, Chavez was a humble farm laborer who set out to be an agent of change.
Mexican actor turned director Diego Luna has made an emotional movie with
simple human dimensions. Chavez wasn’t a dynamic speaker or necessarily that
charismatic. He looked and sounded very ordinary, a modest man driven by simple
righteousness. So it’s appropriate that Luna’s film (based on a Keir
Pearson/Timothy J. Sexton script) stumbles a little with the sweeping moments in
this intimate biography passed off as larger than life epic.
Chavez’s struggle to unionize exploited farm workers — his long marches, his
hunger strike — make for moving moments, but rarely achieve grandeur. It’s the
commonplace organizational struggles, the Gandhi-like obsession with on-violence
and the stubborn refusal to be bullied by the bigoted, the rich, the armed and
the powerful that stands out in “Cesar Chavez.”
Michael Pena (“End of Watch”) has the title role, a farm worker whose family
once had land but lost it in the Depression. He has labored in the fields. He
knows the back-breaking, knee-bloodying work of grubbing up onions or cutting
grapes. He knows the campesinos who do that work, with few breaks provided by
the growers, and no toilets “because Mexicans don’t know how to use’em,
The film picks up his story in the early ’60s. He’s already trying to
organize the pickers.
“Do you own anything?” he asks one, in Spanish. “Can you read or write?” And
finally, the tipping point question, “Do you want more for your kids?”
His union bosses in Los Angeles (Rosario Dawson plays one) have been trying
and failing to get headway by leafleting and the like. Chavez says, “I wanna get
my HANDS dirty.” And with his wife Helen (America Ferrara), he loads their eight
kids into a tiny Volvo and moves to Delano, California. They work in the fields
by day and have meetings, trying to convince workers to hold out for better pay,
better working conditions and “human dignity,” by night.
Pena, a low-heat actor in most films, uses that to his advantage here. Chavez
was famous for holding his temper, following Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s
ethos of non-violent protests, legal obstruction (pickets, boycotts) and
passive resistance. The reserved Pena finds humor in the confrontations with
billy-clubbing cops, who call him and the union “communists.”
“Communists? We’re Catholic. How can Catholics be communists?”
Ferrara gets to be the fiery one, playing a willful woman who brushes aside
her husband’s patriarchal sexism, vowing she can get herself arrested just as
easily as the next organizer. When California makes it illegal to say the word
“huelga” (strike) in the fields, Ferrera’s Helen screams it with a wild-eyed
passion that is positively chilling.
John Malkovich plays the face of the opposition, a rich, landed grape-grower
who is passing his business on to his son and who leads grower opposition to
“giving in” to “dirty foreigners.” He himself is an immigrant, but he’s willing
to ally himself with his more bigoted peers to get his way.
A lot of the names of the companies and foes of this civil rights movement
have been changed. But not the politicians. Ronald Reagan, then governor of
California, does all that he can to break the union, and is seen on camera
calling the grape boycott “immoral.” Richard Nixon finds slippery ways to
undercut the nationwide boycott and keep the workers from winning a living
Like “42,” “Cesar Chavez” lacks the budget to feel truly epic in scope. The
violence is scattered, shocking and personal, the struggles within the union
muted but the outrage — cops rioting against picketers, thugs shooting and
running over organizers, sheriffs arresting protesters because they “fear for
their safety” — is palpable. Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes) shows up
midway through the movie, ostensibly to grandstand for the cameras and give the
growers cover. Holmes, in a spot-on impersonation, shows that rare politician
who dared lose his temper, expressing the audience’s fury at the Constitutional
rights we see being violated by a legal system that the growers own and control.
Luna wrestles this story into shape and in the process, much gets
shortchanged. Chavez’s neglected family is further neglected to make way for
more in the long “pilgrimage” march from Delano to Sacramento.
But Pena, in the title role, finds the simple dignity in a very basic
struggle, to give “these people” faces and names, to make America notice them
and to teach a culture one simple, elemental lesson.
“Once a social change begins, it cannot be reversed.”
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for some violence and language
Cast: Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, America Ferrara, John Malkovich
Credits: Directed by Diego Luna, scripted by Keir Pearson and Timothy J.
Sexton. A Lionsgate/Pantelion release.
Running time: 1:58