Cesar Chavez (2014) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for crude and sexual content, language and brief nudity
Running Time: 89 min.

Cast: Michael Pena, John Malkovich, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley, Michael Cudlitz, Yancey Arias, Mark Moses, Gabriel Mann, Jacob Vargas
Director: Diego Luna
Screenplay: Keir Pearson

Review published April 1, 2014

Diego Luna (Abel) directs this informative biopic about Cesar Chavez (Pena, American Hustle), the union organizer and civil-rights activist who fought for fair wages for the grossly underpaid migrant farm laborers working in central California in the 1960s. As a community organizer, Chavez worked tirelessly rallying people who didn't have a voice of their own. What starts out as an attempt at negotiations for fair wages is met with rebuke from the farm owners, forcing Chavez to get the workers to band together and form a "huelga", or strike, in order to get the owners to comply. When that isn't working, eventually Chavez mounts a boycott campaign, crying out for people across the state, and country, and world, to stop purchasing grapes from California until their demands are met.

John Malkovich (RED 2, Warm Bodies) plays Bogdanovich, a fictional composite bad guy who represents the side of the well-to-do farm owners, fighting Chavez and his union tooth and nail to keep the wages low on their grape-picking operations. What the growers have on their side is leverage with the law, as the politicians and law enforcement is shown to support their interests against the laborers, often turning a blind eye to their transgressions and strong-arm tactics in trying to break up the strikes. Despite the odds stacked against him, Chavez is determined to persevere and keep the workers together, hoping that when the rest of the country sees their plight, that they will be supported and put pressure on the government officials to stop resting on their laurels.

A long-time underappreciated actor, Michael Pena has his opportunity to shine in the spotlight as Chavez, who is shown as tireless and savvy, and not made out to be some sort of fiery orator or super-human when it comes to mounting a protest. His approach is appropriately subdued, and it won't rank among his most passionate of performances, but it is in keeping with the kind of calm, cool, and collected man that Chavez was in real life.  He doesn't go through a major transformation for the role for Chavez's hunger strike tactics, but for the modest means of the film's scope, it's serviceable.

Luna's direction has a certain docudrama feel, utilizing handheld cameras to keep us in the action as if we're in the midst of conversations and public demonstrations. The screenplay from Pearson and Sexton jumps around in the timeline, but develops the momentum of Chavez's story arc well, even if we are occasionally sidetracked from the main story for Chavez's interaction with his troubled, eldest son. We assume his motivation for helping the farm workers stems from his childhood experience being a migrant laborer himself, as well as the pride in not wanting to see his people continue to be exploited with little to show for their back-breaking effort. While much of Chavez's life is a matter of public record, the behind-the-scenes dialogue between Bogdanovich and his family, as well as his cronies in the farm industry, is obviously concocted for dramatic effect.

The politics of the film does skew to the left, which you might expect for a film that celebrates the life of a union organizer against the stifling power of big business. Political figures as Robert F. Kennedy are shown to be heroes to the cause, while then-governor Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon are shown to not only have a deaf ear to their pleas, but make it even harder for their voices to be heard in the court of law, if not the court of public opinion.  The film might also be accused of sugar-coating the life of Chavez himself, making him seem without his own share of weaknesses and controversies, paying reverence more than really digging into just what makes the man tick as a political force.

Cesar Chavez, the movie, is meant to inform people who are feeling shut out by the system that they have a voice if they find a way to band together and don't bow down to adversity, so long as they keep the high ground and stay within their right to public assembly. Although Chavez is certainly a worthy person to make a biopic about, perhaps it may have trouble connecting with audience unfamiliar with the man and his work, as his story doesn't really conform to traditional narrative arcs easily, with most of Chavez's big victories come from conversations he has with people with true power, or in securing others on his side through negotiation of contracts.

His fight is not physical, but mental and legal, and that doesn't always translate well to the on-screen pyrotechnics some may be seeking. Nevertheless, it is a respectful piece, enlightening for those curious, and a good start for those completely unfamiliar with the man and his fight.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo