Directed by: Diego Luna
Released on: March 28th
Grade: 4 out of 5 meatballs
Reviewed by: John Esther
It has been a long time coming, but finally somebody has made a theatrical film about Cesar Chavez, and it is my favorite 2014 film so far.
Born March 31, 1927 in Yuma, Arizona, Chavez grew up knowing what it was like to be exploited. After the Chavez family lost their home during the Depression, they worked in the fields for very little compensation. As all hands were needed in the field, Chavez did not attend school past the 7th grade.
After serving two years in the Navy, Chavez returned to the fields. From there he quickly rose through the ranks of the American labor movement working for the CSO (Community Service Organization), a human rights organization which encouraged Latinos to register to vote.
In the early 1960s Chavez started focusing on the farm workers of Central California. While the workers of the United States had gained considerable rights since the 1930s, the Latino (and Filipino) workers who mined the agricultural crops in Salinas, Fresno, etc., were left behind to toil in working conditions too similar to those found in the recent film, 12 Years a Slave — which took place 100 years prior to the time of Cesar Chavez.
To any person with an ounce of tenderness, this was unacceptable. But anger and indignation were hardly enough to start an organized labor movement. The poor workers were scared and rightfully so. They could be fired, deported, beaten and, in a few cases, killed, without any legal recourse. Even if the workers were not afraid, white people, who were raised racist, were afraid of them. Any attempt to win over the hearts and minds of the dominant race had to be done through peaceful resistance.
So, in the early 1960s Cesar (Michael Peña) and his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), packed up their eight kids and drove toward the fields of Central Valley, California and began to organize the men, women and children who were being exploited by unbridled capitalism. (If you want to see what the U.S. would be like without a federal minimum wage, see Cesar Chavez.)
Fortunately, this is where the film begins. Rather than dwell on Cesar's childhood and what motivated him: his lack of education, his service in the Navy, etc., the film focuses on Cesar's brilliant non-violent organizing skills and the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, AKA the United Farm Workers (UFW). Moreover, to focus solely on Cesar's biography would betray the film's underlying message: Cesar could not have made the kind of history attributed to him without the help of countless others (see War and Peace).
Rather than offer the typical Hollywood hagiography (see Noah) about how one man changes the course of history, director Diego Luna (in his first English-directed film), along with co-writers Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton illustrate that great change comes from the multitude of players involved in any movement.
A woman of fierce convictions, Helen Chavez was no stranger to radical protest and getting her hands good and dirty. She may have been the mother of eight children, but Helen was not going to submit to any Latino machismo ideas about taking a backseat — domestically or politically. (Pardon me: The scene in Cesar Chavez where Helen deliberately gets arrested for defiantly yelling the banned word, "Huelga" or "Strike" may be the hottest scene of any woman in film this year.)
Cesar Chavez also takes the time and effort to illustrate the contributions of UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). Not only was she a force in working class solidarity, but sisterhood solidarity as well. The UFW would never have succeeded without the participation of so many brave women.
Then there was Gilbert Padilla (Yancy Arias), the UFW area director, who provided structure by establishing service centers where people could convene, organize and strategize and Cesar's younger brother, Richard Chavez (Jacob Vargas), who had his older brother's back and counseled wisely when Cesar's emotions got the better of him. They and others, from here to Europe, created the solidarity necessary for positive change.
Luna and film editors Douglas Crise and Miguel Schverdfinger took the appropriate efforts to show the numerous faces of a movement. A movement by "an army of boycotters" that sparked a statewide, then nationwide, then worldwide boycott of table grapes.
To the film's credit, it also reminds us what an extraordinary politician Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes) was to the working class. Kennedy actually visited the epicenter of the strike and boycott, talking to the people and challenging the belligerent local authorities to read the U.S. Constitution. His behavior was a stark contrast to then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, who called the grape boycott "immoral" and the collaboration of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon (who was born in California), to get the military to subsidize the grape growers in order to break the proletarian defiance.
Cesar may have been the auteur of the crew, but as any organizer or filmmaker knows, the ultimate vision of a successful movement, whether it is for the rights of the worker or a film, is the work of many visionaries, and not solely the performance of its spokesperson or director.
The film also reminds us that whatever fruits Chavez enjoyed on a professional and personal level came at the cost of a parental one. As the eldest son of America's most reviled Mexican American, Fernando Chavez (Eli Vargas) was bullied at his predominately-white school while being ignored by a father too busy working outside the home. Fernando was too immature to understand the sacrifices his father was making for the good of the nation. Fernando needed a father, not a martyr.
Ultimately, they both got what they wanted and lost what they had.
Riveting, inspiring, agitating and fortifying, smartly directed, very well acted, and demonstrating a sophisticated attention to detail, Cesar Chavez is a film worthy of its subject.