Farm Workers Unite! The Spirit of Cesar Chavez Lives
Diego Luna’s second directorial outing is a prudently succinct brief-biopic about the Mexican farm-worker-turned-union-activist responsible for improving working conditions for migrant laborers in America. Timed for the film’s release to coincide with the March 31st birthday of César Estrada Chávez (1927–1993), the movie relies on Michael Peña’s ability to flesh out the character and substance of a man whose legacy many rightwing followers would rather pretend never materialized. Peña’s stoic charisma is well suited to the role, which comprises Chavez’s poker-faced ability to speak truth to power, as well as to the angry farm workers who look to him as their leader. Cesar Chavez’s commitment to non-violence takes center stage.
Screenwriters Keir Pearson (“Hotel Rwanda”) and Timothy J. Sexton (“Children of Men”) check off other necessary boxes. Former Presidents Richard Millhouse Nixon and Ronald Regan are rightfully raked over the hot coals of history for their racist stances against migrant workers when confronted with Chavez’s challenge to improve the pay for farm workers. The filmmakers elegantly weave in archive black-and-white newsreel footage to ground the narrative in fact.
The ubiquitous John Malkovich plays Bogdanovitch, an immigrant from Croatia and wealthy grape-farm owner who views Chavez and his migrant laborers as “children” who must be punished. Although Malkovich is, if anything too urbane for the role, he does provide the film with an easy villain for the audience to aim their anger at. His vicious character’s archetype adds to America’s ongoing conversation about minorities that sell out their own kind as soon as they get into any position of power or authority. Sound familiar?
The film covers the ‘60s time period when Cesar Chavez moved with his wife Helen (America Ferrera), and their eight children, from Yuma, Arizona to Delano California. Tired of being distanced from the plight of farm workers during his time spent working for the Community Service Organization — he was the group’s national director — Chavez is an impatient visionary, ready to get his hands dirty.
The harsh plight of Delano’s impoverished migrant workers is on display in the ramshackle houses they are forced to live in. Chavez co-founds the National Far Workers Association with Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). Still, it’s Cesar’s wife Helen who is the first to take action whenever it’s called for. Getting arrested proves to be an awakening experience for Helen after she dares to yell “Huelga!” (strike) after a local judge makes doing so illegal.
A strike by Filipino grape-pickers opens a door for Chavez to lead his group of Mexican workers to join with their Filipino brothers and sisters to demand higher wages.
The appearance of Robert Kennedy (well played by character Jack Holmes) in Delano, California to support Cesar Chavez and his union’s strike against grape farms achieves the desired impact. The scenes of Robert Kennedy speaking up on behalf of farm workers is a reminder to modern moviegoers that America once had a liberal left with plenty of gas in the tank.
“Cesar Chavez” is far from being a perfect movie. Its small budget is apparent, and the film’s dramatic arc doesn’t extend as high as it might. Be that as it may, the movie reaches its goal of reminding audiences how far migrant workers have come in America since the ‘60s, and how far they have yet to go toward better working conditions and higher pay. It only takes a pinprick to burst open floodgates of public consciousness. The spirit of Cesar Chavez lives on.
Rated PG-13. 101 mins. (B-) (Three Stars – out of five / no halves)