Michael Pena as Cesar Chavez
Michael Pena as Chavez with his wife, Helen (America Ferrera)
Michael Pena as Chavez with his wife, Helen (America Ferrera)

by Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic

Few movies can be billed as “important” or “historic” before they are even released. But this bio-film about the life and times of labor rights activist and organizer Cesar Chavez deserves those accolades. He is an iconic American hero who walked in sync with Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. A homage to him is long overdue.

In 1962, Cesar Chavez (Michael Pena, “Crash,” “End of Watch”) used his background as a child farm worker and his experience as the national director of the civil rights group Community Service Organization to form the United Farm Workers Union. His aim was to bring dignity, labor rights and human rights to the migrant farm workers who toiled in California. At his side were his wife Helen (America Ferrera, “Real Women Have Curves,” TV’s “Ugly Betty”), fellow activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson, “Unstoppable”) and his brother Richard (Jacob Vargas, “Traffic”).

This project is the brainchild of Mexican actor Diego Luna, who audiences will recognize from his internationally acclaimed breakthrough movie “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and more recently the Harvey Milk drama “Milk.” He’s onboard as a producer and the director. This is his vision. As a producer, he’s assembled a solid cast, screenwriter and technical crew.  As a director he gives the film an epic feel and a style that’s a bit more foreign/indie than classic American Hollywood. This movie has a very even tone, with few dramatic flourishes that roust it from its steady rhythm. Compared to a bio-film like “42” or “Malcolm X”, this earnest endeavor is filled with facts, emotion and historic accounts, but eschews huge dramatic ploys. It’s understated approach that probably reflects the life of an earnest man who brought rich, powerful farmers and politicians to their knees, in a peaceful, disobedient manner.

Organizing the workers who knew they were being treated poorly was not an easy task for Chavez. Farm owners used intimidation tactics to dissuade their laborers from talking to him or joining the AFW. When their unscrupulous methods failed to stem the tide, they pressured a local sheriff (Michael Cudlitz, “Southland”) to disband demonstrations. Forcing all the farm owners to allow their workers to join the union and negotiate basic rights seemed an impossible task. So Chavez wisely chose to target one farm at time. Like dominoes, each began to fall, until he ran into one particularly treacherous owner, Bogdonovitch (John Malkovich) and his son (Gabriel Mann). With the help of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy (Jack Holmes), Chavez and his group overcome obstacles. Demonstrations spread far beyond the Golden State. A specific boycott on grapes gave AFW a single-issue movement that resonated worldwide.

In Keir Pearson’s (“Hotel Rwanda”) screenplay, attention is also duly paid to Chavez’s personal life and the sacrifices his family made with an absentee father/husband. The script plays up a testy father versus estranged son relationship that highlights the loss families suffer when the head of a household heeds a higher calling. This subplot provides a nice counter-balance to a series of events that make the organizer seem more godlike and prophetic than imperfectly human. Also, Pearson’s inspiring dialogue is on the mark: Chavez, “This is not about grapes, it’s about the people. They have faces, families. We want to give them a voice.”

Pena has a tough job playing a larger-than-life man whose strength was as introspective as it was overt.  How do you play a man who goes on a hunger strike to convince his followers that they either abide by his non-violence stance or he would rather die? It’s a challenge. As an orator, Chavez doesn’t’ display the fiery chops of a MLK or Malcolm X, which doesn’t give Pena a lot of chances to ratchet up dramatic moments. Instead, within the confines of the character’s quiet-fire persona, Pena glows. Vargas as his brother shows more outer emotion. Ferrera and Dawson are fine.  Malkovich’s turn as the sinister grower is not that convincing. Cudlitz as the smarmy sheriff, who knows when to push and when to sit back, seems more authentic.

Cinematographer Enrique Chediak (“28 Weeks Later”) shines just the right amount of light on California’s parched, dusty valley terrain. The costume design (Maria Estela Fernandez) and production design (Ivonne Fuentes and Krystyna Loboda) recreates the ‘60s and ‘70s well. The film’s pacing is not an issue (Douglas Crise and Miguel Schverdfinger).

Chavez’s legacy and spirit will be kept alive by this rousing and empowering film. Watching the footage makes you relive his life and feel the true importance of his David versus Goliath mission that pitted him against adversaries as powerful as Governor Ronald Regan and President Nixon.  He persevered. He was righteous. The AFW made life better for millions of workers, thanks to him.

Bravo Diego Luna for making a powerful movie that is brimming with wisdom: Chavez, “You can’t humiliate someone who has pride. You can’t scare someone who is not afraid.”

Visit Dwight Brown at www.DwightBrownInk.com.

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