I’ll admit it. On my way to the screening for Cesar Chavez I found myself feeling like I was on my way to a lecture. The subject matter of the film- at least as I understood it as someone unfamiliar with the history of what took place- made this film seem like it was going to be one of those “take your medicine” educational films that are “important” but kind of dull to watch. I didn’t think I’d get a whole lot out of a story about a man fighting for labor rights for workers on plantations in California in the 1960s. But then, within 10 minutes of the film starting, something remarkable happened. I found myself completely absorbed, and like the heart of the story had reached out and grabbed me by the throat.
, as directed by Diego Luna, has a very arresting effect. The grainy aesthetic of the cameras, the documentary-like way in which the scenes are shot, and the naturalistic performances on display give the film that unique ability to make you feel like you are there. You feel like a fly on the wall, watching what’s happening from a mere inches away from the action. See, the film starts with the story in-progress. This isn’t a from-baby-to-grave, glossy biopic. This is something that’s meant to capture a pivotal time in American history, and to show you the seminal moments that made this 5-year mission such a resounding statement.
It moves quickly. We start with Chavez (Michael PeÃ±a) having a conversation with a plantation worker, surrounded by his wife and kids in a cramped little house, and within minutes we see that he’s gathering support, forming alliances, and preparing to move away from Los Angeles so that he can have a more direct connection to the folks working in Delano that he wants so badly to help. The brisk pacing gives the film a real sense of urgency. Luna makes great use of short micro scenes, that may only contain a couple lines of dialogue, but that help add to the size of the story being told. The pacing is so tight, that I was actually floored when the film ended and my watch revealed I’d only been there less than two hours. They pack so much into the film, without it ever dragging.
All of the main characters in
, played by a great ensemble cast that includes Rosario Dawson, America Ferrara, & John Malkovich, are introduced quietly as part of the tapestry of the story. We see how all of these people, and all of the forces involved, become woven together in what is to be a long struggle for basic civil liberties and labor rights. As I said before, the film has a very no-frills, documentary feel. So while Malkovich plays a detestable human being, don’t expect any booming “bad guy” score as he twiddles his mustache. The natural performances and tone of the film also serve to make the more violent confrontations all the more powerful. When shots are fired, blows exchanged, and seething animosity is expressed, it stands in stark contrast to the rest of what’s being shown.
If there was one problem I had with the movie, it was with the relationship between Chavez and his son. It’s clear that their subplot means a great deal to the story, as it provides a lot of the insight needed to understand why Chavez is fighting so hard. And what’s shown between them is interesting to watch, including one particular scene that put a lump in my throat. But there isn’t enough of it. The three or four scenes where we see how Chavez’s crusade is costing him the very relationship that means the most to him, tend to come out of nowhere- and can somewhat feel like “here’s another ungrateful Hollywood Annoying Teenager subplot.” Since you believe so much in what Chavez is doing, and so much of the film is focused on his virtuous campaign, to suddenly see his son yelling at him about “you care more about your movement than about me” just kind of cheapens what was probably a far more complex dynamic between the two of them.
Speaking of complexity, what PeÃ±a achieves with his performance in
is no small feat. When playing a historical figure like this, it can be hard to find the heart and soul of a man that was seemingly a saint. The script itself doesn’t do much to contest that Chavez was just a good, honest man. There is no darker side, and no fatal flaw. But PeÃ±a finds a way to make him a multilayered human being. Having recently worked on
End of Watch
, which also had a pseudo-documentary, naturalistic feel, it’s clear the actor knows how to strip down a performance to its organic core. He shows real maturity as an actor by trusting that the camera will come to him. It will capture everything, so there’s no need to try too hard. Just be present and in the moment. We see the character’s doubts, his fears, his determination, his love for his family, his jealousy, and his eventual struggle to keep up the fight. It helps that Chavez was never a very show-y leader. He wasn’t a great orator and speech-giver like other notable historical figures. He was soft-spoken, and more of a strategist. This gives PeÃ±a plenty of subtext to play with, and he does so very well.
There are sudden, chaotic shifts in tone that I had felt maybe should’ve been built-to better, like when protests suddenly get violent and people who had been part of Chavez’s pacifist movement were suddenly stooping the level of the plantation owners. But then, as I let it all digest, I felt like those sudden outbursts were meant to further draw us into Chavez’s personal experience of what transpired. With a movement that involves thousands of people like that, it can be hard to keep a firm grip on everyone and on everything. So I’m sure he was blindsided, as we are as an audience, whenever things took a sudden turn.
It’s clear to see that the film is also meant to resonate with current affairs. Luna and his team of storytellers depict what happened in the 60s as something wholly timeless. This isn’t just about labor rights and immigrant plantation workers. This is about what happens when thousands of people join together as one to exact change. It’s just one chapter in a storied history within our country that shows what happens when enough people have a unified voice, and are willing to move out of their comfort zones to actually take a stand for, or against, something. By keeping this massive story grounded to its human elements, it makes it universal.
, I had a similar experience here to when I saw
12 Years A Slave
, where I found myself deeply moved by the raw, human experience being depicted on the screen. This, despite the fact that my personal life experience is very far removed from what’s depicted in either film. I highly recommend this movie- a beautiful testament to the human spirit.