Keir Person’s screenplay starts you off right as Cesar Chavez decides to pack up his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his eight kids and move to Delano, California to be there firsthand on the battlefield of injustice. It’s there where Cesar, Helen, and their trusted comrade Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) fight, nonviolently of course, for migrant workers rights for people that make less than a measly $2 a day for picking grapes in the vineyards. It doesn’t take long before Chavez catches the disdainful eye of not only the law but that of the vineyard owners, including the ‘their rights are costing me money’ Bogdanovich played by John Malkovich. Chavez really starts to cost them money when he starts a strike that would, in total, last for over five years.
Watching this at the famous Paramount Theater at SXSW, with a raucous, proud crowd, and only a few blocks from Cesar Chavez Blvd., it was hard not to be infected by all the love surrounding the subject of this movie. With a little time passing after viewing, I can see the flaws, for which there are enough, a little more clearly, but I’m glad to say that the heroic tale and biopic of Cesar Chavez is very much worth a watch.
Actor Diego Luna directs his second feature with an obvious love and weighty sense of duty to tell the story of the life-changing activist Chavez and the movement he championed. Luna’s strengths are knowing when to deliver well-placed moments of levity that help us relate to the people who are making such bold sacrifices.
Luna’s understating tendencies on the other hand make for an at times lackluster viewing experience, failing to be as riveting as it could be. Chavez is played by the tremendous veteran actor Michael Pena (End of Watch) who has to play a quieter lead, much like Mark Wahlberg’s Mickey Ward in The Fighter, but unlike in David O. Russell’s film, there aren’t the lively surrounding characters to spark up drama, which leaves Pena grasping for ways to make scenes bigger.
Aside from Chavez partaking in a 25 day hunger strike that draws national attention, setbacks for the resistance don’t pack the punch to always maximize their struggle. Also, Luna and his script try to paint the full picture that Chavez wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t convinced by the simple highlighting of the point that because of his tireless efforts for equality, his family life, in particular his relationship with his eldest son, often took a back seat.
The real life drama of Cesar Chavez is enough to carry more than enough spark for the film’s underwhelming moments.
Take a Drink: whenever actual historical footage is shown.
Take a Drink: whenever Chavez has a heart to heart with his eldest son.
Down a Shot: whenever Chavez gets really, really mad.