MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Cesar Chavez’

cesar chavez

Film: Cesar Chavez
Directed by: Diego Luna
Starring: Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich

At right around 100 minutes, Cesar Chavez isn’t one of those sprawling, bloated biopics that aims to explore its subject’s entire life story. The filmmakers behind Cesar Chavez knew precisely the story they wanted to tell, focusing on the five years (1965-1970) that Chavez spent leading Hispanic and Filipino workers on a nonviolent strike against owners of California grape fields. But perhaps their take is a bit too on-the-nose.

Cesar Chavez is the first dramatization of the Latino Civil Rights leader’s story, a story that seems to fall outside our collective consciousness as it’s a chapter of American History curiously ignored in most U.S. schools (the film’s release was situated around “Cesar Chavez Day,” which only three U.S. states recognize as a state holiday). Perhaps Mexican actor-turned-director Diego Luna, making just his second feature, felt a responsibility to remedy that injustice with this project. In fact, Cesar Chavez is screening at some high schools ahead of its theatrical release, which is appropriate because the PG-13 film feels like it was made largely to be screened in the classroom.

Through long-distance marches, a 25-day hunger strike and, finally, convincing thousands of people (many of whom were white housewives) to boycott specific brands of wine and grapes grown at certain vineyards, Chavez tirelessly fought for fair wages and humane working conditions for immigrant laborers making just $2 for a full day’s work while often not being allowed to use the bathroom.

The underrated Michael Peña has been effective in bit parts and comedic relief roles for years, but proved in 2012’s End of Watch he was capable of much more. This is the type of role he deserves. Or at least it should have been. Peña is unable to inject any personality into the character, but it probably doesn’t help that he isn’t given much to work with.

Though Luna briefly touches on elements of obsession, stubbornness and male chauvinism, Chavez is largely presented as even keel. He co-founded the United Farm Workers union and inspired thousands to rally behind his cause. So he must have been an extremely charismatic leader, but Peña’s emotionless delivery would lead you to believe otherwise.

But Peña is not alone. America Ferrera is typically a scene-stealer, but her performance as Chavez’s wife falls equally flat. After going to jail for simply chanting the word “huelga” (Spanish for “strike”), which became a battle cry of sorts for the movement, she returns home to tell Cesar how amazing and enlightening her time behind bars was. Cesar immediately flashes his jealous side when she mentions lying down next to a male inmate, but this altercation quickly fizzles out without generating any heat.

Luna seems afraid to commit to exploring any of Chavez’s demons, or even his family life. His oldest son, Fernando, feels neglected and takes issue with his father’s devotion to the union, but their issues don’t seem to be any different than the issues any teenage boy has with his father. Dig a little deeper, and I’m sure there’s something more there that made Fernando feel like he had no choice but to leave his mother and seven siblings behind while he goes to live with his grandparents.

Did I mention personality? I suppose that’s where John Malkovich comes into the picture, playing a particularly gruff version of his usual character as a vineyard owner whose empire is threatened by Chavez’s movement. Though I’ve questioned Luna’s ability to work with actors, he has an adept visual eye and Enrique Chediak’s lush photography, combined with Michael Brook’s atmospheric score nicely set the tables for any potential drama. The drama itself is just hard to find in a script I can only describe as “workmanlike.”

The film is wholly watchable, but that’s largely due to Chavez’s remarkable story rather than the quality or ambition of the filmmaking. And let’s face it — it’s hard to think of a major biopic that isn’t at least watchable, especially when looking at it from an educational standpoint. But how many of them are able to make a lasting emotional impact with the viewer? Considering the film’s subject matter — desperate workers picking grapes until their knees bleed, hunger strikes, unprovoked white men beating picketing pacifists — we should feel uncomfortable at times. It’s when you can’t help but look away or squirm in disgust of the rich white man’s actions that these lessons really start to hit home.

For argument’s sake, consider that starting in September, 2014 Oscar Winner 12 Years A Slave will be distributed to high schools. Now, which film do you think is going to have a greater impact on a high school student? The film I have spent the last 700 words describing? Or, well, 12 Years A Slave?

Grade: C-

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