For every struggle, there is a leader, and for the farm workers of California, that leader was Cesar Chavez.
Review (with Spoilers)
Admittedly, though the name of Cesar Chavez was certainly familiar before seeing this film, what drew me to watching this was mostly Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera who, outside of the occasional appearance on The Good Wife, I haven’t seen much of since Ugly Betty was cancelled/ ended. But it should be noted that while they are participants in the film, the star is Michael Pena who plays Cesar Chavez.
Characters & Story
Cesar Chavez (Michael Pena) is a man born in Arizona to a family which formerly owned a farm, but when the depression hit his family lost their farm in pursuit of jobs they assumed would be in California. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only ones with hopes to find work, so they were left with a bit of dashed hopes, but a spirit which remained unbroken. Something which would help Chavez in his later years.
Which leads to the heart of the story which deals with Chavez’s rise as a civil rights leader, with assistance from his wife Helen Chavez (America Ferrera) and, the woman who is noted as co-founder of his United Farm Workers union, Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). The three combined try to organize farmers who are paid, at most, $2 a day while the farm owners, of which a prominent one is played by John Malkovich, rather try to seek undocumented immigrants or export to Europe in order to bypass coming to a negotiation table.
However, even with the farm owners, President Nixon, Governor Reagan, and the death of Robert Kennedy working against Chavez and the United Farm Workers, one major battle in the war for justice was accomplished.
In what you could be taken as a backhanded compliment, I felt Cesar Chavez more so aimed to educate or provide an overview, of Cesar Chavez’s work than present this as an entertaining biopic which wanted the type of performances which elicited accolades. I say this because everyone comes off sort of dry, and no one really seeks to stand out in their performances. Even Pena, as Chavez, feels very toned down to the point I’m not sure if I’m just used to grandeur, charismatic performances, or if Chavez and his team were just not as lively as most figures we get to meet through film. I will say though, I quite liked the use of interlacing archival footage with the story giving it the type of feel which made it feel like you were more so in the moment than watching a film.
With that said though, at a little under two hours, I must admit the film really does feel like something you’d watch in school and would fall asleep on. I would probably account this to the fact it really doesn’t pull much out in terms of bells and whistles. I mean, yes it shows the brutality of the farm workers daring to stand up to almost plantation styled farm owners, but outside of those scenes where the farmers, including Chavez, and the owners are showing their passion for or against the cause, it is quite boring. Also, Pena to me may play the role well, but being that he is the focal point of the movie, it is hard to say he is as enrapturing as Idris Elba was in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, if you want to compare one civil rights leader biopic to another.
Then, what makes things worse, is if you do a bit of research on the film, you start to wonder why Dolores, pretty much isn’t allowed to really get into the action. I mean, maybe researching her and Chavez’s life may show that she may have been more behind the scenes, but something about the way she was first presented in the film makes it seem like they downplayed her role, as well as Helen’s, in the film. And considering they did show Chavez as a bit of a machismo at times, perhaps this was meant to be symbolism?
Overall: TV Viewing
Like with Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the movie is good in terms of giving you a basic overview, or rather introduction, so you can hopefully be intrigued enough to do your own research, but entertainment wise it doesn’t have a high value. Pena, be it because of how Chavez was as a person or just how he wanted to portray Chavez, doesn’t call for your attention, and no one really does. The acts of violence and the struggle are what keep your eyes glued to the screen, and naturally, these moments are only meant to show the peaks of when the movement was making progress. However, before and after those moments are a rather drag to sit through, so at best I can say this is worth TV viewing.