'Cesar Chavez' film a solid tribute to farm labor leader

The Fresno BeeMarch 26, 2014 

"Cesar Chavez" is an inspirational tale of the fight for human rights and a tender story of a father struggling to stay connected with his family. But it also shows signs of having a tight budget and an inexperienced director.

This is a story that's long needed to be told on the big screen and, under Diego Luna's guidance, the film, generally, is a solid tribute to Cesar Chavez.

Chavez brought the national spotlight to the central San Joaquin Valley in 1965, when he got mostly Latino farmworkers (National Farm Worker Association) to join the Filipino American grape workers (Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) in a strike to protest years of poor pay and horrible conditions.

RELATED: UFW's Gilbert Padilla recalls battles, boycotts of Cesar Chavez era

The screenplay by Keir Pearson picks up with Chavez becoming aware of the plight of farmworkers and moving his family to Delano so he could be closer to the problems.

There are a few references to Chavez's past, but not enough. It would have served the film better to at least give the audience a point of reference as to why it was Chavez who stood up while others stayed on their knees. And the film would have benefited from a little more history on the struggles by farmworkers that started decades before Chavez.

RELATED: Actor/director Diego Luna proud to tell "Cesar Chavez" story

The film bounces between the efforts by Chavez — a global boycott of table grapes and a hunger strike — to draw attention to the injustices. Michael Peña brings a nice quiet power to the role of Chavez, bouncing from the strong leader trying to rally workers to stand up for their rights to a frustrated father watching his son pull away.

The best family moments come in scenes between Peña and America Ferrera as his wife, Helen. The film shows that without Helen's support, both at home and in the fields, there would have been no way for Chavez to have accomplished as much. Ferrera plays the role with a beautiful range, going from the caring wife watching her husband's health slip away during the hunger strike to a feisty matriarch ready to take a baseball bat to anyone who threatens her family.

There are some strong supporting performances, including Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta and John Malkovich as Bogdanovich, one of Chavez's major opponents.

RELATED: America Ferrera plays Cesar Chavez's wife, who was key to the cause

There are a few weak moments, especially the scenes during the long hunger strike. Neither Peña's performance nor Luna's direction adequately shows the pure test of human will that was needed to keep the protest going. There's also a lack of attention given to the timeline, which takes away from how long a commitment was made to this battle.

What Luna fails to do with those scenes, he makes up with a beautifully photographed movie that reflects the dusty, oppressively hot fields where this story unfolds. He scouted locations where events actually took place, but those areas had become too modernized. The director found the perfect location in Mexico to match the Valley.

The story of Chavez has such a natural power, it's amazing there haven't been more movies made about his life. That's why, even with a few flaws, "Cesar Chavez" beautifully reflects the political and personal power of a man who showed it was possible to change the world from a dusty field.

Movie review

"Cesar Chavez," rated PG-13 for violence. Stars Michael Peña, America Ferrera, John Malkovich. Directed by Diego Luna. Running time: 101 minutes. Grade: B

Theaters and times

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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