While most people in the United States have heard the name Cesar Chavez, very few of us know anything about him other than that he was a Mexican American labor leader who organized the grape boycott back in the 1960s and 1970s. So any biography, even a plodding, TV movie of the week style film is probably worth seeing. It’s certainly preferable to the latest Batman movie. Diego Luna’s film is probably as weak as its critics have accused it of being. But I also think he deserves credit for an earnest, well-intentioned effort.
Cesar Chavez opens up with Michael Pena’s voice over. Chavez was born in Arizona in the 1920s. His parents owned a ranch, which they lost during the Great Depression. Like John Steinbeck’s Okies, they moved west to California to work in the fields. Chavez himself was a migrant laborer when he was 11. We next see Ceser Chavez as an adult. He’s living in Los Angeles, working for a group called the Community Service Organization, trying, unsuccessfully, to recruit a family of migrants. Chavez, who’s supported by another organizer named Dolores Huerta, Rosario Dawson, announces that he doesn’t feel as if he’s any use as a labor bureaucrat in LA. He wants to go back to work in the fields and organize workers on the ground. Some TV movie of the week drama ensues. None of his kids want to uproot themselves, but his wife is supportive. They all pile into a car, drive to Delano in California’s Central Valley, and Chavez gets to work in earnest.
The scenes that take place in Delano have been criticized for their historical inaccuracy, more specifically, for their failure to pay sufficient attention to Chavez’s Filipino allies. While the script does in fact include one very striking scene centered on Filipino migrants, I think there’s probably some truth in the criticism. My own experience includes working in an Alaskan Salmon cannery back in the 1990s where the workforce was broken down into four distinct groups, Anglo Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos and Slovaks. I probably know the rhythms of a work environment like the one Chavez tried to organize better than Diego Luna does, and I don’t think he’s captured very much of what a group of agricultural laborers acts like in reality. Cesar Chavez was filmed mostly in Mexico and the scenes in Delano do indeed strike me as biased towards Mexicans against Filipinos. What’s more, they feel sanitized and didactic. There are no single, sexually frustrated young men who drink too much. Everybody has a nice Christian family.
The scenes in Delano do effectively dramatize the racism Mexican Americans experienced back in the 1960s, still experience, and just how in the tank for the ruling class the police are. One of the strongest scenes involves an attempt of the police to outlaw the world “huelga” (“strike” in Spanish), and Chavez’s wife, played by America Ferrara, leading the civil disobedience. The subplot involving the racist harassment of Chavez’s son never quite comes alive, but the local, conservative white women who come to heckle the strikers do provide a vivid image of racism and xenophobia. But don’t expect John Ford. We never really get a sense of the terror and isolation experienced by migrants. Nobody gets cheated out of wages outright, even though there are scenes where workers protest their wages being cut. There’s a pro-forma nod to feminism, but Rosario Dawson, as Dolores Huerta, really doesn’t have much to do. Compared to the way the old 1950s film Salt of the Earth puts women and their struggle at the center of the narrative, Diego Luna is well intentioned, but weak in his delivery.
The weakest scenes of Chavez, by far, are an attempt to dramatize his hunger strike. Try not to fall asleep as Michael Pena sits in bed and tries to look sick. Pena, who doesn’t really have the charisma to carry the film, seems to disappear. The narrative gets confused, and John Malcovich, as a racist, right-wing grower, steals the movie by default. Chavez’s veganism, which, as far as I know, played a major role in his work, is cut out of the story altogether.
The second half of Chavez feels like a 1970s liberal “movie of the week.” Robert Kennedy is good. Then he gets shot, and we get Nixon, and Ronald Reagan, who are both, of course, in the tank for the rich growers. That it’s all perfectly historical — Robert Kennedy did aid the grape boycott and Nixon and Reagan were in the tank for the rich — doesn’t make it work as drama. I did learn that Richard Nixon attempted to break the grape boycott by selling California grapes in Europe and having the military buy the rest, but Chavez’s trip to Europe to convince British and French labor leaders to support him might just as well been a documentary, or a TV news special.
So the final verdict? See Chavez for the historical importance of the subject, but don’t expect too much. The man himself was far more complex and interesting then Diego Luna portrays him here. The real Cesar Chavez, the anti-communist, Catholic vegan who fell into the trap of trying to raise wages by limiting immigration, deserves a better movie. This one will have to do for now.