Director: Diego Luna
Screenplay: Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton
Cast: Michael Peña, John Malkovich, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley, Michael Cudlitz
Screened at: Dolby 88, NYC, 3/12/14
Opens: March 28, 2014
Union days appear over in America, where only nine percent of workers are members of organized labor. This certainly does not mean that the working classes and middle classes that were formerly active in such groups are ecstatic about their wages: quite the contrary. Bosses have found ways to work around militant organizations by exporting jobs to China, Vietnam and quite a few other countries with much lower standards of living than our own. And given the fear that working people have of being tossed out of their jobs should they try to fight for better conditions, they give the owners of industries large and small their tacit consent not to protest.
In the exciting days of the 1960s, however, when Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and others with guitars and banjos showed their support for the down-and-out with protest songs, battles erupted between labor and management, perhaps the most exciting being that between migrant grape pickers and the owners of vineyards. In a stirring, narrative drama led by a fierce performance from Michael Peña in his first major role, director Diego Luna bursts forth with a story that has no shades of gray: just a glorious battle between good and evil.
In an effort to keep the drama authentic, Luna avoids filming in California as the fields do not look as they did in 1960s, but instead heads south to Hermosillo, against rural lands that resemble the acreage of our own country at that time. The title character, Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña), comes across as a saint, a man without a single blemish while the owners of the vineyards and the law-and-order authorities are racist and evil. Knowing how bosses would hire goons especially in the earlier days of union organizing, one can pretty much agree with this depiction.
Chavez, whose family lost its land in California during the Depression, decides against being the kind of union leader who works out of a comfortable office, living large and negotiating sweetheart contracts with the employers they bed with (so to speak). He moves his large family, including his wife, Helen (America Ferrera) and his children—all of whom want to stay where they are—to the Delano fields of the great state that now produces one half of all America’s fruits and vegetables. He goes through the steps followed in his past by organizations like the Knights of Labor, speaking first to small groups, then to large, trying to overcome their fear of being fired and sent back to Mexico according to the U.S. government rules dealing with migrants. Soon it became illegal (albeit unconstitutional) for any person to shout “huelga” (“strike”), promising beatings and a jail term for such advocates of free speech.
With the local sheriffs in their pockets, Governor Ronald Reagan called the strike “immoral” and President Nixon, who promises vineyard owner Bogdanovich (John Malkovich) that he can export his grapes to Europe to overcome a boycott, the union looks doomed. And without Chavez’s own charisma, the owners would have won. Instead, the workers, with financing from supportive groups, carry out a five-year boycott of grapes, urging consumers to settle for other fruits, while Chavez himself undergoes a fast for about a month to gain publicity for the boycott. Eventually Chavez becomes Time magainze man-of-the-year, his birthday, March 31, now celebrated as Cesar Chavez day.
Happily, Cesar Chavez, the biopic, is not a documentary, which would have resulted in desultory interviews with hopelessly dull talking heads. Instead Luna, using a vibrant script from Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, captures all the excitement of an earthy group of largely illiterate farm workers, no longer settling for $2 a day in grueling work under a hot sun. Peña is superb, wholly convincing, and gets fine support from America Ferrera as his loyal wife and Rosario Dawson as organizer Dolores Huerta. Kudos to the Mexican state of Sonora for providing the movie’s broad, outdoor production design, and to the waiters in Hermosillo’s Chinese restaurants for turning into actors for a few weeks in their roles as Filipino migrants.
Rated PG13. 98 minutes. © 2014 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – A-