If anything, Diego Luna’s “Cesar Chavez”—a biopic about the famed Hispanic civil rights activist who fought for basic human and labor rights for migrant workers in the 1960’s and 70’s—should be commended for not trying to tell Chavez’ entire life story. This is a common trap biopics fall into, it was the main reason why last year’s Nelson Mandela biopic was so disappointing. With “Chavez” Luna doesn’t begin with Chavez as a little kid and doesn’t end it with him as an old man proudly looking back on his life’s work.
Instead it focuses on the five-year period in which Chavez led a grape pickers’ strike/boycott in Delano California with the intent to get better wages and better working conditions. When we first meet Chavez he, along with his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and others have opened up a credit union, formed the United Farm Workers group and are in the beginning stages of the boycott/strike.
However, while this narrowing in on one specific period is good, Luna and screenwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton leave out one important thing: they don’t show us Chavez’ motivation for wanting to be a civil rights activist in the first place. At the very beginning--in what looks like an interview with some unknown person--Chavez (Michael Pena) mentions how when he was younger and working in the fields (not the Delano fields) he was exposed first hand to the injustices faced by the migrant workers and that’s when he knew he would be an activist. This is a key bit of information but by just telling it to us instead of showing us--instead of placing us in those fields with him--we don’t get enough sense of why he’s passionate about his cause.
In fact, overall this movie does a lot of telling when it should be showing. We get a lot of speeches and lectures that pretty much say the same thing over and over again and are full of big, movie poster-worthy quotes like: “you can’t oppress someone who’s not afraid anymore.” And to go along with these endless speeches (or rather over-explanations) we get one repetitive and generic picketing/protesting montage after another that don’t carry much weight. Furthermore, at times, Luna struggles to create a cohesive narrative flow, as there are numerous awkward lapses in the film’s timeline.
Pena does what he can in the role (I do think Pena is a massively underrated actor) but ultimately the script sort of lets him down. I don’t know much about the real Chavez but from the movie he appears to be funny, charming and not afraid to go head to head with the myriad of ignorant rich white jerks—such as a grape grower played by John Malkovich—that are opposing the strike. All good attributes but they remain surface level. We don’t get to know him as a person, how he interacts with people as a non-activist. Basically it’s not a down to earth portrayal and unfortunately he’s the one who delivers the majority of those speeches and lectures. And even as an activist he doesn’t seem all that commanding and influential. Pena doesn’t give him much of a powerful presence and so you wonder why so many people are following him.
The supporting cast isn’t treated much better. Ferrera tries her best but her character is mostly just there to be tough and loyal at Chavez’ side and also fill in plot points. At times you get the impression that this boycott/strike is taking its toll on her (especially when Chavez decides to go on a hunger strike) but Luna doesn’t dedicate much attention to that. There’s also a side plot involving Chavez’ oldest son and how Chavez’ neglects him too--it’s interesting how these famous leaders and activists turn out to be lackluster fathers—which again isn’t given much time to blossom into anything lasting. This wouldn’t really be a problem except that Luna ends the entire movie on a tender moment between the son and Chavez (well, in letter form) that’s well intentioned but doesn’t feel entirely deserved.
I don’t mean to come down on this film too much. It’s a feel good flick that sheds light on an important historical activist who did a lot of great stuff. The movie is never flat out boring and I still appreciate that Luna doesn’t bite off more than he can chew in regards to the film’s scope. And yet, it still manages to fall into biopic clichés and the characters rarely go beyond surface level.