Cesar Chavez biopic brings farm worker struggle to the screen

Cesar Chavez stars Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson. Directed by Diego Luna. Rated PG-13. Opens in Seattle Thursday.

March 31st would have been Cesar Chavez’ 87 birthday. Twenty one years after his death, we finally have a film.

Expectations are both high and low for tonight’s release of Chicano Union leader biopic “Cesar Chavez.” Some are thrilled to see Chavez’ story finally told on the screen.

For many, this is just another attempt by Hollywood to give crumbs to the Latino community–a fast-growing segment of moviegoers. There are others that worry the film will not represent history accurately, simply echoing the well-worn legend: the pacifist lone organizer who mobilizes farm workers just by speaking and hunger striking.

And the biggest concern for a lot of Chicanos and Latinos: “I hope it’s not corny and cheesy like other ‘uplifting historical’ biopics.”

Cesar Chavez. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Cesar Chavez. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Going in to see the film, I landed somewhere in the middle of these arguments.

Diego Luna has directed two previous films: JC Chavez, a documentary about the Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez (no relation!), and Abel, a drama about a young boy with mental health issues.

Luis Valdez, who worked closely with Chavez and later directed La Bamba & Zoot Suit would have been my pick to direct this film, so I was cautious in embracing Diego Luna as a director. He focuses the film on the years 1961-71, the creation of United Farm Workers and the Delano Grape Boycott. Luna does a good job at showing the life, struggle and sacrifice of union organizer and members trying to attain rights.

Michael Peña might be considered the hardest working Chicano in the film industry today. He was last seen in David O. Russell’s American Hustle but is most notable for his role in Crash and as another Chicano leader, Sal Castro, in Walkout. Peña does not impersonate Chavez, nor give a corny homage. Although he does try to get Chavez’ speech patterns there is still a sense that we are watching an actor take hold of a character. He creates a character that we want to talk to, work with, support and relate with. We also see the machismo and some jealousy towards his wife Helen (played by America Ferrera of Real Women Have Curves and Ugly Betty). He shows his stubbornness as a union leader and as family man.

There is a subplot about a ruptured relationship between Cesar and his oldest son Fernando. While I wanted to see more of a backstory we end up with a compassion for Fernando and a father who “doesn’t care about me. He only cares about the union.” This will resonate in organizing circles, where the demands of building a movement often take time away from loved ones.

The film is not necessarily about the UFW, but I was disappointed by the lack of representation of Dolores Huerta’s vital work. In the film she is seen as a sister-in-law and co-worker, which is accurate. But she also co-founded the UFW and was a major force in organizing and negotiations.

Also missing is Filipino farmworker leader Philip Vera Cruz; another Filipino organizer, Larry Itliong, is present only in passing. But in actuality the UFW could not have existed without the Filipino farm workers striking first. Thankfully the documentary Delano Manongs will give Filipino Farmworkers its due respect.

A United Farm Workers flag containing the Huelga (or Welga) Bird. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
A United Farm Workers flag containing the Huelga (or Welga) Bird. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

John Malkovich’s portrayal of farm owner Bogdonovitch, a fictional character based on several owners but particularly John Giumarre, was a great delight. Portrayed as a multilayered person who at times was empathetic with workers and their culture but still was constantly patronizing and the villain.

Jacob Vargas (Selena, Next Friday) did a great job as Richard Chavez, Cesar’s brother and Dolores’ husband and the creator of the ever-famous UFW eagle. He brought laughter and clarity to moments where we there needed to be a voice of reason. Like the moment when Cesar is sleeping during his fast he asks him “Are you dreaming of food?” and later remarks “We need a leader not a martyr.”

I came out of the film with a small sigh of relief that the importance of Cesar’s life was represented by an experienced director who could tell the story with respect and dignity.

Although there are some historical inaccuracies, Cesar Chavez is a good example of why we need more Chicano/Latino films that represent our history.

If you are skeptical, I urge you to go watch and discuss. If you are already excited to go watch, bring a friend and discuss afterwards. We need to support Chicano/Latino actors, producers, directors and films otherwise studios will continue to negate audiences and communities of our representation and experiences.

In 2011, Barack Obama declared March 31st to be Cesar Chavez Day. I say it’s time we make it a national holiday.

See the film in Seattle »