Too reverential for its own good, this film feels like a social studies class instead of a work of art.
Cesar ChavezDirector: Diego Luna
Cast: Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, Yancey Arias, Wes Bentley, Maynor Alvarado
US DVD release date: 2014-07-22
In the years following the Great Depression, thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans living in the United States were deported in what became known as the Mexican Repatriation, because the government feared they were making economical growth even harder to achieve. A few years later, when the United States entered World War II, the government came to the realization that nobody was doing the job all the deportees had been making; that is, cheap manual labor, usually in farms.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to make an agreement with Mexican President Manuel Avila Camacho that would allow Mexican citizens to return to the United States legally for a short period of time, and have them retake the manual labor they were doing before they were kicked out of the country. These farm workers eventually came to be known as “braceros” (“doing something with your arms”), and through the decades were subjected to brutal racism, low salaries and many other injustices that, sadly, are still occurring in our times.
It wasn’t until Arizona-born activist Cesar Chavez took it in his hands to start unions for the farm workers that things started looking differently for them. Chavez is one of the most well known Hispanic activists in the United States, which means it was just a matter of time before someone made a biopic about him. What’s a shame is that the film in question, also titled Cesar Chavez, is that it is such an uneventful affair. Feeling more like a handsomely shot social studies class than a rousing, inspirational tale of how to make a difference, the film, directed by Diego Luna, focuses on some of the most iconic strikes initiated by Chavez (played by Michael Peña). The film starts in media res; we meet a grown Chavez as he tries to rally the exploited workers of a large farm, who fear their employer’s retaliation.
Chavez’s methods were completely nonviolent, and the film similarly becomes too meditative, so much even that we feel like it lacks any passion. While we know that the story it’s telling is important, the film never really feels urgent, which is quite worrisome when everything about it should brim with relevance and timelessness.
Simply put, the main problem in the film is that it’s stuck in a limbo between what it wants to be and what it should be. Chavez is the rare kind of sociopolitical figure, who is both well known and not known enough. People in the United States will at some point or another hear about him, since he’s usually mentioned in anything related to the struggles of Hispanic people in the US. However, internationally he is completely unknown. He is a figure that has more in common with Cinco de Mayo celebrations than with Latin American heroes like Simon Bolivar or Benito Juarez.
The problem then is making a film that will be able to satisfy people who know Chavez and people who have no idea who he is, and Luna’s film fails to satisfy both aspects. The plot assumes too much about who’s watching and gives very little information about the characters. Rosario Dawson for example, plays activist Dolores Huerta, but if you have no idea beforehand who she is, the film won’t bother informing you about it. She appears without much fanfare and her role is so limited that you often feel they will just use her to create a love triangle between Chavez and his wife Helen (played by the fiery America Ferrera) which never even happens, but such is the film’s ambiguity that we expect it to follow every single biopic convention possible.
Similarly, it glorifies Chavez more than it humanizes him. This is not to say his achievements aren’t worthy of glorification, but rather that the film is too reverential for its own good. Chavez is painted like a saint whose major defect was not paying enough attention to his family, which sadly makes him quite uninteresting as a character. When the film should have us cheering for him, it satisfies itself with its propagandistic sensibilities, which is a shame because Chavez truly should be more known than he is. In an ideal world, this film should have served as an introduction to Chavez that invited us to learn more about his groundbreaking work. In reality, it’s nothing more than a well intentioned melodrama almost as forgettable as it is well made.
Cesar Chavez is presented in a terrific high definition transfer that allows it to have the grain and texture of film, even if it was allegedly shot on digital. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak makes a great job in recreating the feel of mid-'60s films and this Blu-ray does his work great justice. Extras are limited to a twenty minute making of documentary in which the actors and filmmakers share anecdotes and continue praising Chavez.