MRR Review: "Cesar Chavez"

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Rating: PG-13
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Directed by: Diego Luna
Genre: Biography

For years in the United States, Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans toiled as migrant farm workers under abysmal conditions for shockingly low wages. Most of the country didn't realize this was going on, and others simply didn't care. In "Cesar Chavez," actor Diego Luna steps behind the camera to illustrate just how dire the situation was before the titular character became an activist and changed the way an entire industry treated its laborers.

The film starts with and adult Chavez (Michael Peña) already working on farms, picking grapes or whatever crop is currently ready for harvest. He was born in Arizona to a family that once had land and as much status as Mexican-Americans could achieve in the 1920s. Unfortunately, his family lost everything in the Depression, so Chavez works hard to make a living under backbreaking and sometimes inhumane conditions. His spirited wife Helen (America Ferrera) works with him while also raising their eight children.

Chavez finally gets fed up with the poor wages and grueling hours, so he begins to try and organize the workers into a union. He tries many approaches to get the workers to fight for better working conditions, but nothing works until he finally gets personal. He asks if the parents who work in the fields want a better life for their children. The answer is a resounding, "Yes," and this finally gives Chavez the angle he needs to get everyone organized.

He holds rallies, gives speeches and even goes on a long hunger strike at one point to get his message across. Chavez is staunchly against violence and doesn't do anything showy, yet his message resonates loud and clear. He started the famous "No Grapes" campaign that was meant to get Americans to stop buying table grapes until growers and farm workers agreed to better labor terms. He went on to form the United Farm Workers union, which negotiated better wages and hours for migrant farm workers. After years of hard work, sacrifices and planning, Chavez achieved what he set out to do, and it's all captured in this film.

The early 1960s was a noted time for major historical and cultural events, including Beatlemania, man walking on the moon and the civil rights movement. Many of these overshadowed Chavez and the beginning of his movement, and this is likely why he had to work so hard to spread his message. In Gandhi-like fashion, Chavez worked tirelessly for his ideals and goals, facing swift competition for space in the newspapers or precious minutes on a news broadcast.

Though some feel Chavez has achieved saint-like status, the film is careful not to make him look too saintly. Yes, he did a lot of good for many people, but he also had to make some very big personal sacrifices. Chavez sometimes neglected his relationships with his children and wife in order to make speeches. He could also be overly preachy at times, a point the film makes with an emotionally resonant exchange between Chavez and his eldest son. This warts-and-all portrayal ensures that the audience sees the humanity and inherent flaws in the man, while still portraying him as a good and principled person. It's an honest portrayal, brutally honest in a few scenes, that works on many levels.

The performances in "Cesar Chavez" are fantastic from top to bottom, especially from Peña. He portrays Chavez quietly and in an understated manner, staying true to the mannerisms of the actual man. Chavez was not known as a charismatic person, unlike other civil rights champions of the day, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. He wasn't a fantastic orator like King either, but he was passionate and impressed people with his dedication, which Peña is careful to portray. Peña also has great chemistry with Ferrera and is a fantastic foil for Bogdanovich (John Malkovich), who is his central adversary in the film.

An entire generation of people may not have heard of the United Farm Workers union or the story behind how it came to be. "Cesar Chavez" hopes to change that with its straightforward yet nuanced take on the activist. Luna, directing primarily in English for the first time, seems to be almost as passionate Chavez himself, taking great pains to show all the minutiae and great struggle that comes with trying to incite social change. It's possible that a whole generation has never heard of Cesar Chavez the man, but if that general likes great biographical films, they will definitely hear about "Cesar Chavez" the movie.