Michael Pena as Cesar Chavez.

Farmworkers in the Frame: ‘Cesar Chavez’ is Worth the Wait

When I heard that farmworkers were being bussed from around California’s Central Valley to Delano, the town where the United Farm Workers (UFW) union was founded, to watch the new biopic, Cesar Chavez: American Hero, I had mixed feelings.

It’s not that it didn’t make sense, of course. The trip was no doubt worthwhile for the workers, who don’t get to see lives like theirs represented on film very often. On the other hand, many farmworkers and their advocates already know this story–and they’ve probably seen enough dusty farm fields to last a lifetime. Indeed, it’s perhaps the rest of us who might consider spending an hour and a half contemplating the lives of the people who grow our food.

The film, directed by Diego Luna, written by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and produced through a partnership between Pantalion Films and the progressive powerhouse Participant Media, portrays a decade in the life of the civil-rights activist and labor organizer. It’s a classic biopic—complete with a simplified story, heart-wrenching sound track, and lots of golden light.

We see Chavez and his compatriots establish the union in the early 1960s, face off against the racist farm owners of the time, establish a code of non-violence within the UFW, and, after five years, gain improved rights through their grape boycott. Cesar Chavez boasts an all-star cast, including Michael Peña as Chavez, Rosario Dawson as Delores Huerta, his co-organizer, and John Malkovich as grower John Bogdanovich, and it ends before the story of the UFW gets too complicated.

In other words, it’s not an amazing cinematic feat. But you should see it anyway. Because the fact that it was made at all–that mainstream Americans will be asked to consider the plight of farmworkers then and now–is big.

For one, it has the potential to introduce young people to Chavez and the farmworker plight generally. As Luna says of his inspiration: “I found that there’s an entire generation in both Mexico and the States who may not know much about who he was, what happened in the 60s and 70s and the importance. That’s when it occurred to me to make a film.”

There are also a handful of very powerful scenes in the film. Like the moment when Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife (played flawlessly by America Ferrera) shows up to the vineyards where imported Mexican laborers have been brought in to replace the striking UFW farmworkers and starts yelling “Huelga!” or “Strike!,” knowing full well she will get arrested if she does.

Or the moment, halfway through the UFW’s famous 1966 pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento, when the workers open boxes of donated boots that will help them continue their dusty trek.  Or the radio interview Peña’s Chavez is shown giving in Europe, where he goes to divert the boycotted grapes that President Nixon has agreed to send there (a scene we can only assume is based on an actual transcript).

When asked why they engaged in the boycott, Chavez says: “It’s never been about the grapes, it has always been about the people, the poorest of the poor, the marginalized, the ones who’ve been ignored. There would be no food on the table without these people. These people have names, faces, families. And I guess what we want to accomplish is to give these people a voice.”

At its best, this type of film should make viewers want to learn more. And the speed at which this one tells, and often glosses over, Chavez’s story will do that for some, who might also see the ways the farmworkers have continued to struggle since that first grape boycott victory. And who knows, this film might even prompt some viewers to want to understand Chavez’s contemporary counterparts, such as grassroots leaders of the recent Fast Food Worker strikes or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?

But most of us don’t see biopics for the facts; we see them because we want evidence that people can overcome hardship, face down obstacles, and stand up to the powers that be. We want to be reminded that justice is possible, if only for a moment. On that front, Cesar Chavez: American Hero delivers.

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