Movie Review - Cesar Chavez

Not since Walter Salles' The Motorcycle Diaries or Steven Soderbergh's Che (2008) has there been a biographical film on a prominent person in Hispanic or Latin American history. Cesar Chavez is the Mexican-American, born in Arizona and raised in California, who in the 1960s organized farm workers into unions and fought bigotry and oppression to ensure the fair treatment and better pay for those farm workers.

The timeliness and relevance of this movie could not be any more apt. Written by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, one of the key issues in this film is that of higher wages for the farm workers who work the fields harvesting fruits and vegetables by hand. Chavez talks to farm workers in Delano, CA, and he sees that the workers don't make enough to care for themselves properly. One thing that Chavez says is that he's "sorry to live in a world where a man who picks your food can't feed his family."

This film was released theatrically on March 28. For the work that Chavez did, March 31 was made Cesar Chavez Day, an actual state holiday in California, Colorado and Texas. It isn't a state holiday in Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska and New Mexico, but celebrations in honor of Chavez are held on that day. So, the timeliness of this film is obvious for that reason, but also timely and relevant because a week after the film's release, President Barack Obama signed two executive orders that go toward equal pay or better pay between genders, as well as efforts that underpinned those that Chavez made during his unionizing.

In this film, Chavez had to organize protests and strikes against the companies that owned the farms or that made products that came from the farms in order to get those companies to pay the workers a fair or proper wage. This past week, the workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital went on strike about unfair wages at that center in Baltimore. So, again, the timeliness of this film is apt.

The movie is limited to Chavez's life in the 1960s when he was his most active and literally ends in 1970 once he achieved a major victory. The movie makes no mention of what happens to him afterward. In 1973, Chavez won the Jefferson Award. In 1994, President Clinton gave Chavez the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. There are parks and streets named after Chavez and there's even a statue of Chavez in Austin. In 2003, the U.S. Postal Service gave him his own stamp. In 2004, the National Chavez Center opened. In 2006, Chavez was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. In 2011, the US Navy named a ship after him.

This movie makes it clear why the man deserved all those honors. He was essentially the Mexican Martin Luther King, Jr. Filmmaker and director Diego Luna underscores this idea with the scenes of Chavez marching in crowds to make his political statements, but nowhere is this idea underscored more than in Chavez's adamant argument against violence. He was serious that physical fights were not the way. He was all about peaceful resistance.

A brilliant and subtle way the film introduces Chavez's nonviolent policy is in a scene between Chavez, played by Michael Peña, and his son Fernando, played by Eli Vargas. Chavez moved his wife and 8 children from a sizeable home in Los Angeles to practically a shack in Delano, which is about two hours north of LA. His absence and political activism causes a rift between him and his son. Fernando is bullied and he gets into fights at school. When Chavez sits down to talk to Fernando about it, he asks his son who started the fight and non-directly indicts his own son for throwing the first punch.

Peña and Vargas both perform this moment very well and in a small way it perfectly lays the groundwork for their later performances. Like black people under King's nonviolent resistance policy, Chavez and his people had to do nothing but stand tall even when horrible violence was done unto them. There is a comparable scene to the coffee-in-the-face moment in Lee Daniels' The Butler when Chavez's wife, played by America Ferrara (Ugly Betty and The Good Wife), is hit in the face with hot pesticides.

Other events lead Chavez to a breaking point, Peña's performance is powerful. His frustration and sadness is beautifully expressed in something so minor as a lip quiver. Peña is so in the moment that he makes you also be in that moment with him. Peña is of course so handsome and charming. From Crash to American Hustle in which he only has a couple of scenes, he proves he has the gravitas to center and be the leader of this movie, but even in his quiet moments like during Chavez's hunger strike, he proves he also has the sympathy and empathy to be a great beacon on the silver screen. He only has one scene opposite John Malkovich, the great actor who plays Chavez's chief antagonist but Peña more than proves to be a proper counterweight.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 38 mins.


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