This historical biography about the important 1960s labor organizer so actively skews away from Hollywood theatrics that it begins to feel downright quaint.
Cesar Chavez, as you perhaps remember from the 10th grade, was one of the heroes of labor rights back in the 1960s. During the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Chavez united the Latino and Filipino vineyard laborers into a workers’ union for the first time, induced a years-long strike, and effectively incited people to boycott grapes. The boycott cost the grape growers millions of dollars, and ultimately led to fairer employment practices. Until that point, the Mexican workers in the fields didn’t even have bathrooms, “because Mexicans don’t know how to use them,” their racist white masters would gripe. This is all important to the Latino community and the community at large, and kids need to know this stuff. Look up what AFL-CIO stands for sometime.
Actor Diego Luna (from Milk and Y Tu Mamá También) has now produced and directed a calm, muted, downright quaint biopic of Chavez, tracing the history of the strike in incidental, matter-of-fact terms. Michael Peña plays Chavez as an enthused, one-track-minded officiant, free of anything that might approach folk heroism. This is a down-to-earth Chavez who thinks in terms of political and economic tactics, not a glowing, beatific idealist. His calm, clear-headed approach to the strike stands in direct contrast to the snarling racist attitudes of the entirely white (and occasionally, bafflingly Southern) overseers. Only John Malkovich (also one of the film’s executive producers), as Bogdanovich, the head boss of the vineyard, is an equally complex character who is wracked with ambivalence; he too was once an immigrant laborer.
I admire Luna’s no-frills approach to making his biopic. There is a tendency of Hollywood films to cram any and all notable talents and politicos into the same biopic formula, hitting all the usual story beats (the first signs of talent, the early riffing on something they are to write/accomplish later, the first gig, the fatal flaw (usually drugs and/or womanizing), the alienation of those closest to them, the gentle fall, the redemption through resurgence). In a way, the biopic formula is directly counterintuitive to the notion of actually making a film about a great man. It reduces someone extraordinary into ordinary story beats. It simplifies the complexity of an amazing person. It makes usual those who gained power in being unusual.
Luna skews away from any sort of typical Hollywood melodrama with Cesar Chavez, leaving off gigantic emotional climaxes in favor of gentler historical crests. Chavez went through a lot: His wife deliberately went to prison for merely saying the word “huelga,” he went on a famed 25-day hunger strike to ensure that his union was committed to non-violence, he went to England to expand the strike when his vineyard was allowed (by Nixon) to begin exporting their products, he staged a hundreds-mile march for workers’ rights. He was vaunted by RFK and hated by Governor Ronald Reagan. But all of these events, as seen by Luna’s film, are mere incidents in Chavez’ life, and mere evolutions in labor history.
Indeed, the shift of focus away from usual Screenwriting 101 dramatic beats is so pronounced thatCesar Chavez begins to take on a smoothed-over quality. The visuals are textured, the performances are good (Peña is a commanding screen presence, using his friendly round face to belie a resolute and unexpected toughness), but the film is too generalized to feel like the essayic be-all and end-all of Chavez’ life, although you may perk up at seeing some talented supporting players: America Ferrera plays Chavez’ wife, Rosario Dawson plays an accomplice, and even Julian Sands crops up in one scene. Jack Holmes is excellent as Bobby Kennedy.
So there is an irony at work. Cesar Chavez did right to eschew the usual biopic formulae. But, well, it seems like maybe a cliché or two may have helped to give the film some ultimate dramatic oomph. As it stands, this is more a film that is primed for classrooms than for viewers’ hearts, a film that is a textured mood piece mixed with a history lesson, rather than an impactful drama.