Making History

Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez biopic could be better, but Michael Peña still shines

Labor relations and striking workers don't make for a compelling movie on their own. Like everything else, the story needs to come through the eyes or experience of one person, maybe a small group. That's why Cesar Chavez is an excellent choice for a biopic, and why it's a little surprising that we've had to wait this long to get one.

Chavez is one of the most important Americans of the 20th century irrespective of race, and his impact on the Hispanic community is equally undeniable. He's had streets, battleships, schools and a building on the UA campus named in his honor. Barack Obama took his 2008 campaign slogan, "Yes, we can," from Chavez's United Farm Workers motto, "Sí, se puede."

So what difference does (or can) a movie make? Put simply, the more distance we get between lives and actions, the easier those things fade away, and there is a cultural permanence to film that postage stamps and battleships can't match. Tomorrow's children will likely learn more about the Holocaust from Schindler's List than from anything else. So while movies like Cesar Chavez may be easily dismissed by some as a thumbnail sketch of a man's life, it's still vitally important to make that sketch available as a starting point.

The film itself doesn't trace all of Chavez's life. It alludes to his service in the military and his Depression-era upbringing. But the action begins when he finds his calling. By the mid-1960s, farmworkers across the country were facing a crisis. Low pay, long hours and no legal recourse to organizing left them stranded. Chavez (Michael Peña) began talking to workers about the need to unify, and strike if necessary. When that day came and workers walked off the job in California, Chavez became a pivotal, polarizing figure in the shadow of the civil rights movement.

It's a terrific story, certainly one worth celebrating, but that doesn't make the film any better. What plagues a lot of biopics is, frankly, that they can't tell the whole story; Cesar Chavez is forced to squeeze a societal revolution into less than two hours, introduce supporting characters along the way and reveal traits that made the title character the man he was. It's tricky business.

The movie is aided quite a bit by Michael Peña's strong performance. Never before has Peña portrayed a character so magnetically. His soft-spoken nature has generally left his work feeling a little overshadowed, but he's powerful here, and largely convincing (except during a hunger strike).

John Malkovich is dialed in, too, playing a farmer who tries to break the strike organized by Chavez, refusing to give in to the demands of the workers. It's not your typical one-note corporate tycoon performance, nor does it feature many of the eccentricities you'd expect from Malkovich. But that's about as deep as the performances get. Both America Ferrera and Rosario Dawson are largely wasted and nobody else has much to do.

Cesar Chavez is directed by the actor Diego Luna (Milk, Y Tu Mamá También). He's fairly new behind the camera although his first project was a documentary about the unrelated boxer Julio Cesar Chavez. Perhaps if he'd had a little more experience ferreting out the best parts of the story, or had a more skilled hand at how to visually present the script he had to work with, Cesar Chavez would have come to life a little more. It's still a worthwhile life to bring to wider audiences, and no doubt the message they receive will be strong, but there's a lot more that can be done here.

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