By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3 (Out of 4 Stars)
I must say that it has taken way too long for a movie about the celebrated labor activist to arrive. Though this film may not be all that Cesar Chavez deserves, it certainly is a valiant and passionate effort by director Diego Luna and his talented cast. Whatever the film lacks in its presentation, this is more than made up with the heart and soul cast and crew put into this picture. This love for the subject obviously resonated with the joyously lively audience at the SXSW premiere screening. As Luna introduced his cast on stage, the audience gave a nearly nonstop standing ovation with many chants of “Si Se Puede!” which means, “Yes you can!” That was Chavez’s credo, and also Diego Luna’s motivation in making this movie happen.
Luna’s film focuses on Chavez’s activist work during the 1960s and 70s when he began organizing the farm workers and fighting for better working conditions and reasonable wages. Chavez (Michael Pena) forms the United Farm Workers Labor Union for this purpose and dedicates most of his life for his cause. Inspired by the work of Gandhi, Chavez believed in nonviolent opposition, leading peaceful strikes, produce boycotts, marches for awareness, and even hunger strikes. Working with Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), Chavez’s work reached and affected suffering laborers across the nation. This was no easy task, though. Differing opinions within the organization demanded stronger, more violent opposition. Even though Cesar’s wife Helen (America Ferrera) was his strongest supporter, his work definitely put a strain on their marriage and on the relationships with their children.
Working with a limited budget, but with the determination to get this film made, Luna’s biopic does have its issues. Still, the fact that he got this film made and released should motivate more Latino filmmakers to work harder and make their voices heard loud and clear. The screenplay by Keir Pearson and Timothy Sexton follows the typical biopic route with few surprises; however, I do appreciate that Luna and his writers chose to show not only the positive impact that activist work has, but also the toll it takes on the activists and their families. Chavez, Huerta and their organization made many sacrifices to accomplish their goals and this is honored and acknowledged in this film. The entire cast deliver superb performances that transcend the limitations of the script.
While Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, and America Ferrera look nothing like their real counterparts, their passion and love for their roles capture who these people are/were. Pena nearly perfectly embodies the spirit of Chavez. Because Luna wanted to give even unknowns a fair chance at the role, Pena was among many actors who auditioned. At a SXSW press conference, Luna mentioned his intentions for doing this. “I believe this community hasn’t had that many opportunities to be represented. We thought about all of those out there who hadn’t had a chance to do a film or break into theater either.” In addition to serving as a producer, thespian John Malkovich stars as a fictionalized version of Chavez’s main opposition. I asked Luna about his involvement in the film and what he brought to the set. “He’s a good friend. We created a role for him. He showed us the commitment and how rigorous an actor has to be. He didn’t speak Spanish for example. He would be training, sitting in his chair, getting ready. He reminded us that if you put that amount of work in what you do, it pays off.”
I believe that message would please the late Cesar Chavez had he survived to see his work portrayed on the big screen. As a filmmaker Diego Luna had many motivations for making this film, and he learned much along the way. A Mexican citizen, Luna had to learn more about the Mexican-American experience to realistically recreate the lives of these people, not just the activists, but also the laborers. He had this to say about cultural differences within the Latino community, “We’ve been looking for every difference we have–everything that separates us. It is very stupid. We should look for those things that connect us. We are very similar.We have to share our stories, learn from each other, celebrate each other.” Luna hopes his film will not only encourage this, but also inspires Latino filmmakers to pursue this goal.