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Movie Review: ‘Cesar Chavez’ is a story worth telling better

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‘Cesar Chavez’

★★ ½

This typically reverential biopic about civil rights icon Cesar Chavez doesn’t offer much more than a simplistic overview of his life and work — with a heavy emphasis on the inspirational uplift.

Even so, it’s welcome and long overdue if only as a reminder of the prominent place he deserves in modern history.

Produced and directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna, whose Canana Films specializes in Latin American social-justice issue films including the harrowing “Sin Nombre,” “Cesar Chavez” naturally focuses on the famous grape-pickers strike Chavez led between 1965 and 1970. A story that Luna tracks back to 1962 when Chavez (Michael Peña) decides to give up his office job as director of a Latino civil rights organization to get his hands dirty.

Chavez means that literally, having grown up as a migrant laborer after his family lost their farm during the Depression. After moving his wife and eight children into a three-bedroom home in Delano, Calif., he begins working in the fields with Mexican-American laborers being exploited by local grape growers (represented by John Malkovich as a former immigrant land owner) — thus becoming one of the workers he is attempting to organize.

That means Chavez can say “us” and not “you” while attempting to persuade the workers to protest their wages and working conditions. Nonetheless, it takes several years after forming the United Farm Workers union with colleague Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) for him to make the California grape strike a reality.

At that point, the film takes on a more dynamic tone, complete with repressive opposition by the police and outbursts of anti-strike violence, but Luna still faces a couple of significant problems: the protracted nature of the strike and the non-showboating nature of the protagonist.

The former is less of an issue, since domestic drama, featuring father/son conflict between Chavez and his neglected oldest son, Chavez’s month-long hunger strike and the inspired implementation of a national grape boycott help fill the prolonged stretch of time. (As well as occasional assists and resistance provided by pro-strike Robert Kennedy and anti-strike Richard Nixon.)

It’s a little harder, though, to know what to make of a class-struggle hero as soft-spoken, mild and unassuming as the Chavez we see here. While it’s apparently true that he was far from the sort of firebrand that’s usually associated with radical activism (America Ferrera as Chavez’s wife comes closer), it seems safe to assume he must have had considerable personal magnetism. Yet Peña, while certainly making it plain that Chavez had plenty of strength of character, makes him seem essentially charisma-free.

Modest and selfless is nice, of course, but when you’re telling a story about a man so passionately committed to a cause, it’s important for that passion to come through. Even at the risk of making him seem a little more complicated and a little less saintly.

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