(Photo Credit Lionsgate)
Director Diego Luna’s biopic depicting the life of the legendary chicano civil-rights activist Cesar Chavez was recently released on March 28 in theaters across the nation in advance of Cesar Chavez day on March 31st.
The film titled “Cesar Chavez” stars Michael Pena in the title role as a passionate man divided by his responsibilities as a husband and father and his undying commitment to the community of predominately Latin farm laborers he represented.
The story of Cesar Chavez and his impact on the civil-rights movement is one that is historically unlikely to be fully understood beyond the Latin-American farm workers community who greatly benefited from his tireless effort to champion workers rights. Up until the release of this film, Chavez’s heirs were highly reluctant to release the rights to his story.
Chavez is to the Latin-American community as Martin Luther King Jr. is to the African-American community. In his campaign for equality and better treatment of Latino workers, he often borrowed the aggressive yet non-violent tactics that MLK was famously renowned for.
Chavez cofounded the National Farm Workers Association along with Dolores Huerta, who is portrayed in the film by Rosario Dawson. The association would later join forces with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee led by Filipino leader Larry Itliong to form the United Farm Workers union.
Several key events in the film revolve around the UFW’s involvement in labor disputes such as the Delano Grape Strike and the Salad Bowl Strike, which was at the time the largest farm-worker strike in U.S. history. The success of the unions position in the Salad Bowl Strike led to the passage of the landmark statute known as the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act which established collective bargaining rights for agricultural workers statewide.
In the film, Pena does an admirable job capturing the essence of a methodical and compassionate leader who taught ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Luna and the producers aimed towards historical accuracy more so than portraying the legendary activist as a highly charismatic and magnetic personality fit for a clichéd Hollywood movie.
The supporting cast allowed for the film to be believable in the sense that very few if any of the roles are portrayed as being larger than life.
John Malkovich (of “Of Mice and Men” fame) is an exception to the former, as he put forth an outstanding performance portraying a relentless grower willing to fight the UFW campaigns to seemingly no end.
Personally, the film left me wanting more. It is fair to say that it sparked my curiosity about the Man and the movement, however I believe Luna could have spent more time providing background on Chavez as well as digging deeper into his family life and the sacrifices they were forced to make along the way. The story is well written, but again there are times where you wish you could pause the movie and Google search background information on certain characters and events in order to have a better understanding of the unfolding plot.
“Cesar Chavez” deserves at least a one-time viewing to broaden our scope of the less often discussed people and events during the civil rights movement. Can we apply the lessons learned from Chavez’s dogged determination to win fair and equitable rights for the communities he represented in our own lives?
To borrow a phrase made famous by the man himself…
Si se puede.