Cesar Chavez is one of American history's legendary union organizers and workers' rights activists. Back in the 1960s, he was at the forefront of the effort to unionize California farmworkers. CESAR CHAVEZ also is the name of a new biopic: a simple, sincere chronicle of a decade in the life of Chavez (who is played by Michael Peña).
The story opens in 1962, with Chavez an energetic, determined union organizer who moves with his family to Delano, California, where he and his wife Helen (America Ferrara) attempt to bring together farmworkers. The workers collectively are low-paid and exploited. They are illiterate. They own nothing. They live and work in fear and, as soon as their children are old enough, they join their parents in the fields. The bottom line is that they are afraid to ask for more, so they settle for less.
And Cesar Chavez, who spouts such lines as "I'm not tired. I wanna get my hands dirty," tells the workers that, if they join him, they "won't be alone anymore." Chavez and his minions face resistance from the growers, the employers, who of course accuse them of being "communists" and "subversives." But Chavez remains undeterred and, despite simmering emotions, he (like Martin Luther King) stresses the importance of nonviolence, of fostering social change without resorting to aggression. If you know your history, you will know that, in this story, the good guys triumph. By decade's end, after workers' strikes and a grape boycott and a hunger strike on the part of Chavez, he finds himself a respected national figure.
Being that this is a true story, as well as one with a political edge, it should not be surprising that real-life politicians are represented onscreen. Robert F. Kennedy, who is portrayed by actor Jack Holmes, is shown to be sympathetic to Chavez and his cause. Kennedy describes Chavez as "one of the heroic figures of our time." Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, who appears as himself in news footage, refers to Chavez' grape boycott as "immoral."
If you want to criticize the film, you might complain that its title character is portrayed as nothing short of saintly. His biggest flaw is that he is too busy with his union activities to spend time with his son, but this does not mean that he loves the boy any less and, ultimately, it is a minor point in the film. Had it been stressed, CESAR CHAVEZ would have been an entirely different film: a father-and-son family drama. Additionally, Dolores Huerta, who with Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (and is played in the film by Rosario Dawson), is a very minor presence in the story. But in the end, it is the overall content of CESAR CHAVEZ that counts, as well as its obvious intention to chart a key segment in the history of the American labor movement.
However, while watching CESAR CHAVEZ, I could not help but think about what was being represented onscreen from an historical perspective and how it relates to the present day. Certainly, the 1960s and early 70s were a time of political activism: an era when people of all backgrounds took to the streets to march for workers' rights, or civil rights, or women's rights, or an end to the war in Vietnam. And the question here is: There is plenty of inequality in the world today. Plenty of exploitation. Plenty of unchecked greed. So where are the protests from the masses who are the victims?
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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