“Cesar Chavez” is a Mexican-American “42,” a quietly inspiring and well-acted tale of a civil rights icon whose story isn’t nearly as familiar as Jackie Robinson’s. But then, Chavez wasn’t a ball player. He was a union organizer. And while Robinson, with some reluctance, had nobility and greatness thrust upon him, Chavez was a humble farm laborer who set out to be an agent of change.
Mexican actor-turned-director Diego Luna has made an emotional movie with simple human dimensions. Chavez wasn’t a dynamic speaker or necessarily that charismatic. He looked and sounded very ordinary, a modest man driven by simple righteousness. So it’s appropriate that Luna’s film stumbles a little with the sweeping moments in this intimate biography passed off as larger-than-life epic.
Chavez’s struggle to unionize exploited farm workers — his long marches, his hunger strike — make for moving moments, but rarely achieves grandeur. It’s the commonplace organizational struggles, the Gandhi-like obsession with non-violence and the stubborn refusal to be bullied by the bigoted, the rich, the armed and the powerful that stands out in “Cesar Chavez.”
Michael Pena (“End of Watch”) has the title role, a farm worker whose family once had land but lost it in the Depression. He has labored in the fields. He knows the back-breaking, knee-bloodying work of grubbing up onions or cutting grapes. He knows the campesinos who do that work, with few breaks provided by the growers, and no toilets “because Mexicans don’t know how to use ’em, anyway.”
The film picks up his story in the early 1960s. He’s already trying to organize the pickers.
His union bosses in Los Angeles (Rosario Dawson plays one) have been trying and failing to get headway by leafleting and the like. Chavez says, “I wanna get my HANDS dirty.” And with his wife Helen (America Ferrara), he loads their eight kids into a tiny Volvo and moves to Delano, Calif. They work in the fields by day and have meetings by night, trying to convince workers to hold out for better pay, better working conditions and “human dignity.”
Ferrara gets to be the fiery one, playing a willful woman who brushes aside her husband’s patriarchal sexism, vowing she can get herself arrested just as easily as the next organizer.
John Malkovich plays the face of the opposition, a rich, landed grape-grower who is passing his business on to his son and who leads grower opposition to “giving in” to “dirty foreigners.” He himself is an immigrant, but he’s willing to ally himself with his more bigoted peers to get his way.
Luna wrestles this story into shape and in the process, much gets shortchanged. Chavez’s neglected family is further neglected to make way for more in the long “pilgrimage” march from Delano to Sacramento.
But Pena, in the title role, finds the simple dignity in a very basic struggle, to give “these people” faces and names, to make America notice them and to teach a culture one simple, elemental lesson:
“Once a social change begins, it cannot be reversed.”