Dr. Donna Copeland’s
MICHAEL PENA AMERICA FERRARA JOHN MALKOVICH ROSARIO DAWSON
I remember first seeing actor Diego Luna in the astonishing Y tu Mama Tambien. His career and interest in film has developed over the years and he is now presenting his sophomore directorial feature and his biggest film yet. He worked for years to get this film made; having to seek funding in Mexico, Luna and Malkovich also serve as producers. Tackling the true story of one American farm worker striking and working towards labor rights has proved a labor of love, as seen at the emotional premiere of the film at SXSW. Luna’s direction is very standardized and straightforward. Clearly, the working with Alfonso Cuaron (now the first Mexican to win best director at the Academy Awards) has not influenced the actor turned director.
Already a force for the immigration movement, Cesar Chavez (Pena) moves his wife (Ferrara) and eight children to the town of Delano (central California) in 1962, where he would plant roots and get back into the fields trying to create strength in numbers. Chavez wanted to stop $2 dollar a day wages and the mistreatment of both Filipino and Mexican farm workers. The initial resistance from farmers was brutal, as they had the local police on their side. With the aid of Bobby Kennedy and growing numbers and stunts like fasting, Chavez illustrates the importance of what they are doing for a future generation and simply improving the quality of life.
Luna isn’t interested in obtuse camera angles or memorable cinematography; it’s a linear story told with emotion and backbone. Pena (Crash/American Hustle) has continuously delivered great work his entire career. He chooses roles that allow him to be diverse in a wide variety of genres. Unfortunately, the script never offers Chavez that emotional high note that I, for one, felt it needed. The movie is stirring and informative, but those two things you already expect from a biopic for a historical character.
Ferrara gets a few memorable scenes as Mrs. Chavez, both when she is taken to prison and in a few other moments where she becomes the more hostile parenting figure. I felt Dawson’s talents in the film were wasted. While her character is important to Chavez's work, she is underutilized as an actress. Perhaps I was just expecting more, but this film never really set off a fire for me the way something like Fruitvale Station, Ghosts of Mississippi or other racially motived pictures have. Luna is still young, and while his interviews and passion for the project and the movement clearly shows through as he crosses the country promoting it, I see less of that on screen.
Final Thought – An admirable, although standardized, sophomore effort from actor turned director Luna.
By: Dustin Chase
The dramatization of Cesar Chavez’ activism and advocacy for farm workers in the l960s, is well done, clearly defining the issues, the players, and the personal costs of campaigning for social change. The director, Diego Luna, and the writers (Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton) have done their homework, and the film proceeds like a convincing documentary. Michael Pena depicts the character of Chavez well, showing his talent in recruiting supporters, his sometimes-painful interactions with his family members, and his CesarChavezdetermined nonviolent stance, even down to showing weight loss during the process of fasting. America Ferrera as Helen, his wife, and Rosario Dawson, as Dolores Huerta, a family friend and ardent supporter, skillfully represent the women in his life in their strength, loyalty, and at times pluckiness; they have no trouble standing up to authority, even Cesar Chavez himself. John Malkevich, as an unsympathetic landowner, renders his usual gifted level of performance.
A strength of the film is in the depiction of the landowners and government officials as not complete ogres, although, in truth, they actually said and did some unconscionable things. Robert Kennedy shines as a supporter of the cause, and in admonishing the sheriff and other leaders to spend their lunch break reading the Constitution of the United States. After he was killed, and Ronald Reagan became the Governor of California and Richard Nixon the President, things began to look bleak for the farm workers. But this is where Chavez is again to be admired for his intelligence and ability to elicit support. A key factor in the farm workers’ cause was economic; when farm groups worked together and went on strike, some major companies suffered millions of dollars in losses. In reaction, the companies, with Reagan’s and Nixon’s blessings, took the grapes to Europe to sell and to feed U.S. troops. They never expected Chavez to outsmart them by flying to Europe and enlisting the sympathies and help of people over there, and the boycott of California products expanded.
The picture is filmed with hand-hand cameras, which affects me personally, so I was forced to turn away during a good part of the film, although I stayed to get what I could from the audio. If ever I get a chance, I will ask Mr. Luna and other filmmakers if they are aware of how many people suffer nausea when the camera work is so jumpy.
Another subject worth discussing is the following: Chavez emphatically states at one point that when social change begins to take hold, it cannot be stopped or turned backward, just as a person who has learned to read cannot be “untaught.” Unfortunately, in these times we are seeing an example of just that, when unions are being undercut, the middle class is sliding downward, and it is no longer as easy to get ahead, particularly if one is starting towards the bottom of the social ladder. Hopefully, I just haven’t given it enough time, and the downward economic trends in our country will be reversed.
I hope this film is widely distributed among young people as well as adults to remind them of the importance of the U.S. Constitution and the value in protecting workers’ rights.
TAF editor Evan Zimmerman talks to director Diego Luna
MORE TAF Cesar Chavez coverage at SXSW