“Cesar Chavez” – A Great Man Struggles against the Mediocrity of His Biopic

Cesar Chavez landscape

Cesar Chavez (Diego Luna, 2014)

Biopics are frequently problematic. How does one reduce the life of an important historical figure into a meaningful and comprehensive narrative of approximately two hours length? If one tries to do too much, then there is a risk that the vital elements of the subject’s biography – the reason we remember this person – will get lost in an excess of detail. If one’s focus is too narrow, then we never grasp the context of the totality of that person’s actions and influence. Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005), about Johnny Cash, kept the story on Cash’s struggles with addiction and his relationship with June Carter. Once he resolved those issues, the film ended. By being so specific (yet still beginning with the beginning of his career), the film succeeded in giving us a real human being at the center of the story, while also helping us understand why Johnny Cash mattered. By contrast, Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar was a failure, partly due to its attempt to show us all of J. Edgar Hoover’s life (on the other hand, Eastwood’s Invictus – which focused on just one incident in Nelson Mandela’s life – was a fine film).

Since the earliest days of the cinema, filmmakers have tackled biographical subjects, so there’s a wealth of both positive and negative examples to choose from. Take your pick. Opening today we have Cesar Chavez, by the actor-turned-director Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá TambiénMilk). I wrote a brief review of the film after I saw at the SXSW Festival. I did not like it very much, although I certainly found aspects of it to admire. There was tremendous energy in the theater when Luna got up on stage at the end with his actors, and if only that energy had been present in the film, it might have been significantly better.

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), the man, was a seminal American labor organizer whose nonviolent protests in the 1960s and 1970s – and founding of the United Farm Workers Union with fellow activist Dolores Huerta – eventually resulted in the major United States agricultural growers being forced to grant higher wages and more decent conditions to the legions of field workers who had long toiled in hardship. If you believe in workers’ rights, he was a great man. As played by lead actor Michael Peña (End of Watch), however, he’s a bit of a passive force and accidental leader, who stumbles and shuffles his way to victory. It’s hardly a fitting tribute to his legacy. I have liked Peña as a supporting actor in other films, but here he is out of his depth.

There are two other actors who could have risen to the challenge and carried the film – America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty“) and Rosario Dawson (Seven Pounds) – since they have demonstrated real power in other roles, if only they had been given a chance by the script. Instead, this is yet another film where women are cast as supporting players, rather than active participants. Since Dolores Huerta (Dawson) was at least as important as Chavez, this is particularly inexcusable. Fererra (as Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife) gets more of a chance to flex some muscle, but it’s not enough.

So what we have is a film with occasional flashes of historical interest – and if you know nothing about Chavez, you might as well see it – and a lot of dead weight. If you keep your expectations low, you might actually enjoy it.

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