Biopics of famous figures can be tough. How does a filmmaker humanize the subject and make him (or her) entertaining while also illustrating their personality in the known arc of their achievements and setbacks? With Cesar Chavez, director Diego Luna makes an admirable effort to explicate the life and work of the Mexican-American civil-rights activist (Michael Peña) but this ambitious film never quite excites.
Luna’s modest but occasionally inspiring drama unfolds mostly during the 1960s, when Chavez moved his family to Delano, California to organize migrant workers. The farm workers who were picking grapes were being paid unfair wages ($2/day) and working in unfair conditions (no toilets, is one complaint).
Chavez, the film shows, hoped to change that. He helped start a union to gain the support of the voiceless workers. He stands up to the local law, who probe into his activities because of pressures from townsfolk and the growers. Chavez soon organizes strikes, campaigns to recruit members, and even plans a successful boycott that puts pressure on a winemaker that refused to negotiate with the workers. The efforts pay off initially in a senate hearing attended by Robert Kennedy, who publically acknowledges the value of Chavez’s organizing. After setbacks, Chavez continues to fight for social change, going on protest marches, and an almost month-long fast to draw attention to the plight of the workers. Eventually the growers relent.
Luna crams all these key sequences in to his brisk, engaging film, but the emotional impact is diminished by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton’s didactic screenplay. When one character tells Chavez to be a “leader not a martyr” it is as groan inducing as when Cesar’s son, Fernando (Eli Vargas) reprimands his father for trying to impart a lesson every time they talk.
That said, when Chavez does articulate his points—e.g., that a man who picks your food cannot feed his own family—at a meeting, or in a BBC interview, they come across clearly. Viewers who will appreciate stories about justice and dignity will cheer for Cesar Chavez at these moments.
And while it is moving to see Chavez participating in non-violent protest and working on bringing communities together to fight for human rights, Luna’s film curiously lacks zeal.
Perhaps the central problem is that Michael Peña’s performance is too earnest and noble. Chavez’s flaws—like the jealousy he expresses when his wife (America Ferrera) wants to go to jail for the sake of their cause, or his regrets regarding his estranged relationship with his son—seem tacked on or glossed over. Likewise, the scenes featuring the growers, represented by Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich, who co-produced the film), are not very nuanced. Though the film does score points for including scenes of Bogdanovitch’s Latina housekeeper silently witnessing their racism and classism.
Cesar Chavez is not a bad film, it just could have been a better one. It depicts a history and a man that should be better known. Hopefully viewers who see Cesar Chavez will be inspired to learn more about its subject. Maybe that’s what biopics can do best.
Cesar Chavez opens today in Philly area theaters.