There is a lot riding on Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez to succeed. Latinos aren’t exactly given a lot of representation in fiction, and if there’s one man, one figurehead we can rally behind, it’s the activist Cesar Chavez. As other biopics for figureheads like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela have come and gone, it’s a shame that it’s taken this long to get a biopic for Chavez.
With all of the Latino representation in the recent Academy Awards, now seems like the best time for a Latino-centric hero as film culture finally becomes more accepting of a demographic that’s increasing rapidly. While this first, important step forward stumbles a bit, I hope it’s the beginning of a brighter future.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of South by Southwest 2014. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s wide release.]
Director: Diego Luna
Release Date: March 28, 2014
Cesar Chavez details the life and work of equal rights advocate, Cesar Chavez. As migrant farm workers faced harsh work environments for unfair wages, Chavez (Michael Pena) organizes the workers into a union. And as the film runs through about 12 years of his work (from organizing the union, to facing down several large business, to his hunger strike) all the way until he succeeds at getting his union fair wages. The story focus in the biopic also looks toward the effects of the Union on his family with Chavez’s wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his son.
With the synopsis, you should notice a problem right away. As one of the few biographical films under two hours, Chavez has to cram as much information as it can while still maintaining the narrative. It’s a difficult balance as you find the major struggles Chavez faced are sped through in order to get to another poignant moment. While it hits all the major beats in a Sparknotes-like fashion, it unfortunately dampens the narrative as there are few scenes given time to breathe. And when left to breathe, some moments feel generic as there are quotes goofily given too much weight. Whether or not the run time is a question of budget or script, it still leaves a lot to be desired.
An unfortunate effect of the film’s relative short time is Chavez becomes heartily skewed toward a single demographic. While Latinos definitely deserve our time in the spotlight, it comes at the cost of making everyone else look cartoonishly awful. For example John Malkovich as Bogdanovich, really seems like he’s phoning it in. And if he’s trying his hardest, there’s a noticeable disconnect from what he’s saying and how he’s presenting himself as he says it. Rather than give off a layered character, or at least present him as a sympathetic business owner caught in his old ways, he becomes a villain in all senses of the word. And that’s what happens to the non-ethnic characters. Each one, other than Gabriel Mann as Bogdonaovich’s son surprisingly enough, just comes off as needlessly aggressive. It’s more black and white than the film intends.
But the cast does the best with what they’ve got. Michael Pena is an appropriate Cesar Chavez, delivering lines with the right amount of power and confidence (the film would lose a lot of sincerity without him). America Ferrera gets one poignant moment as his wife and leads to one of the best scenes in the film. There is enough of a representation of the different factions of Chavez’s labor union that can lead to a nice historical debate after completing the film. If only there were a bit more bite, or darkness to Chavez’s overall life.
While we get all of the necessary greatness from Chavez’s life’s work in the film, we don’t necessarily get a complete picture of the man himself. While the film teases a failing relationship with his son (and sees to end the film on that note), there’s unfortunately not enough time devoted to that relationship (or Chavez isn’t given enough darkness to give the son reason for distancing himself from his father other than “Your work is too important!”) for it to really make a difference.
I’m in a conflicted space with Cesar Chavez. I liked some of the grander scenes and rallies, but the film’s length leaves much to be desired. I’d definitely recommend this film for someone in the same demographic as myself (Latino American), but will have a hard time arguing why it’s useful for everyone else. And that’s a shame because I want this film to be everywhere. Chavez’s story is one that deserves to be told. This is a film we need, but not necessarily the one we deserve.
All I can hope is Cesar Chavez makes enough of a stamp it inspires more films like it. The fact this film even exists should warrant celebration, but what we have here is a look at the surface of history. We need something deeper.