Last night I had the opportunity to see the Cesar Chavez movie in Orange County, California. I did not have high expectations for the film given director Diego Luna’s limited experience directing high profile projects and some of the interviews I have seen of him talking about the movie. When I have heard Luna speak about the project, he has rebutted criticism saying that it wasn’t his job to provide a history lesson and that it was hard making a film about a movement that is still recent in the minds of many who worked with labor icon Cesar Chavez.
The film starts with Chavez living and working in Los Angeles at the CSO (Community Service Organization) and moving his large family of eight children to Delano, California to start a union for farm workers. Michael Peña plays Chavez and comes across as someone who speaks in catchy soundbites about justice and sacrifice. America Ferrera plays wife and mother Helen Chavez and lends more depth to her character as a concerned matriarch, but you would never really know that the Chavez’s had eight children because a subplot of the film focuses on Chavez’s strained relationship with his eldest son, Fernando, played by Eli Vargas. The other Chavez children are simply background props and noisemakers in a few scenes.
Exploring the founding of the union while covering Chavez’s rise to prominence in labor and in the national political dialogue, Luna attempts to give us a narrative of what is considered the heyday of the United Farm Workers. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, played by Rosario Dawson, is not prominently featured in the film. She is shown giving some tidbits of advice to Chavez and shouting “Huelga.” Dawson, a seasoned actress who could have added more depth to the film, is underutilized in her role.
Chavez’s historic 1968 fast is portrayed with Senator Bobby Kennedy coming to break the fast at a mass. Jack Holmes plays a somewhat convincing Kennedy, but the dialogue with the Kern County Sheriff could have been tightened up using footage of the original encounter (this event was televised). Luna does make use of archival footage throughout the film, which is a nice touch and adds some authenticity to the film.
John Malkovich plays the leading grower who is framed as the big adversary in the film. His role is more dimensional as his character talks about being an immigrant from Croatia who came to America to earn his fortune. He is unwavering yet humanized by interactions with his son, grandson, and Chavez.
A lot of the scenes felt like they were disjointed, and the film doesn’t ever really develop a smooth flow. One positive was the costume design and styling, which felt like the 1960s and early 1970s.
In reading about Chavez, one thing that often comes across is that he was multidimensional and complicated. This film doesn’t explore Chavez as the strategist, the Catholic ascetic, the paranoid boss, or anti-immigrant union head. Luna presents a rather uninspiring figurehead, who attempts to be predictably positive.
If I had to give this film a letter grade, I would give it a solid C. It’s probably a good film to take kids to so they can be introduced to Cesar Chavez, but for people who are avid filmgoers, this portrayal will probably be disappointing.