There's a certain kind of film that's hard to make without it looking for all the world like propaganda. Certain kinds of religious films fall into that category, where there's the shining hero, the holy downtrodden victims of oppression, and the evil, oily bad guys who always frown.
Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez is just such a film, which is too bad because the story of the farmworkers' struggle is noteworthy and important…and unfinished. This film, on the other hand, is an exercise in reducing everyone to a boring stereotype, punctuated with chants of "Yes we can!"
I confess that I'm no expert on the story of Cesar Chavez, so I'm not going to engage in any speculation about him or his intentions or his connections. I was only 3 by the time the Delano boycott ended, so it was a bit before my time. Rather, I’d like to set aside the politics and instead, look at the film in terms of storytelling, and in a real sense how these farmworkers were truly let down by these filmmakers, regardless of how well intentioned they are. In fact, as I left the theater, I noted to a friend that I had a gash in my head from being pummeled by two hours of righteousness.
It never ceases to dismay me that so many viewers look at these biopics as historical documents rather than as fictionalized renditions of historical figures. Over and over again, filmmakers either whitewash or vilify people from history, relying on the fact that most of us slept through a fair part of history class way back in high school, thus getting away with a heck of a lot of propagandizing. Thus, as good as Chavez's cause was and is, it can't quite escape the fate of being dressed up and cleaned up and prettied up.
As a viewer and a storyteller, that kind of film doesn't succeed for me because it oversimplifies everything: the good guys, the hallowed 99%, are simple and religious and unadorned and not too educated, yet still and wise. They are victims of oligarchy and tyranny, at the mercy of vicious, rich, white landowners. The bad guys, on the other hand, are old, racist, cold-hearted men with nothing but contempt for people of color. They see the field workers as children in need of rules and discipline and little else, and they certainly don't want to cut into their bottom line because that would lessen their ability to live like kings and to be served by pretty Latina girls who stand dutifully at attention.
None of the bad guys had wives, or at least none that were visible. They had sons and grandsons. They had goons. They had the fat white sheriff in their back pocket. They drank a toast to evil old Tricky Dick Nixon and rejoiced at the election of the monstrous Ronald Reagan as governor of California. The women in their lives, or at least the women in their town, were depicted as uptight pearl wearing xenophobic bitches with a stick up their backsides, troubled by the gatherings of “those brown people." Like the mean men, they didn't smile once. The only white woman I saw remotely jovial wore no pearls and had driven down from the Pacific Northwest to join in the struggle.
And Chavez was sort of a dick to her. Sort of. Well, the way he was portrayed in the film, that is, not the real man. He just told her not to buy grapes, and she just said, "Oh, OK," after all the trouble she took to drive the long way to their pilgrimage to Sacramento. He didn't invite her to walk with him. He didn't ask her name, as far as I remember, and he was so busy being heroic that he never really made any serious, substantive connection with this woman, which was too bad. I hoped for more, especially as she was a part of the White Establishment, but no. I'm sure the real Chavez would have been a little more hospitable. It would have been a really great storyline to follow, if only for a couple of minutes, but instead, they dropped it entirely and returned to how awesome and heroic and humble and wonderful Chavez was.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to denigrate Cesar Chavez--I know he did a great thing and accomplished something truly important for vulnerable workers. This review has nothing to do with Chavez himself, and to be honest, I hope he wasn't like the way he was portrayed, because he had to be far more interesting and engaging than the hyper-focused negligent father and slightly sexist husband that he was shown to be in the film. While Michael Pena's performance was solid and intense, he couldn't quite escape from the overwrought script. I liked that there was a bit of a twinkle in his eye, but that's no replacement for so-so storytelling.
As I watched the film, a series of questions came to mind: What was Chavez's background? Where did he get his drive to organize? What was that office he visited for about ten seconds toward the start of the film? What was all that? This sort of in medias res style is not a favorite of mine. I noticed it last year in Man of Steel, and for me, it fell flat because it didn't build on anything. I had the exact same reaction to this film. It starts in a field, with a farmworker with a bloody knee being accosted by Cesar, who then cowers in fear as the white man approaches in his car. Then you're at the man's residence, then an office, and so on.
I always feel like a storyteller should establish a foundation, a character or personality or history or something tangible so that the audience can make choices about who to like and who to hate. My guess is that the filmmakers assumed that Chavez would be automatically sympathetic, so they never gave him any background beyond telling us briefly where he was born and a bit about his father and that was it. Jump to the field, the house the office, etc. It would have been nice to see little Cesar toiling away alongside his father, almost like a memory that fades into the present. Something to hook the audience, if only for five minutes.
As you see from the trailer, the stuff of story is here...but where does it go? It strikes me as interesting that there are no personal stories from individual field workers, which is a lost opportunity. Think of the impact that sort of anecdote could make on this sort of story, and rightly so. Field workers, like anyone else, are not just statues or representatives of an oppressed class. They are individuals, good and bad, complex and busy and stressed out and tired. But what do we get? Typical stuff, weathered faces, religious mantillas, rosaries, hopeful, winsome looks. Actors, not real field workers.
The political agenda did not escape my notice, either. Honestly, I was rather taken aback by the less subtle scenes in the film. Take the Bobby Kennedy/Nixon/police brutality sequence for example. At first, we grow to love Bobby Kennedy, despite his rather horrible mistreatment of women, as a hero of humanitarianism and social justice. Actually, I liked Jack Holmes' portrayal of Kennedy. He brought a fire and passion that the film sorely needed, though I found it interesting that it was only when a white man intervened that Chavez's cause started to gain sympathy and momentum. I don't know the extent of Kennedy's involvement in the strike, though I know that he was a strong supporter and was there the day Chavez ended his 25 day hunger strike. Chavez, in return, committed the UFW to campaign for Kennedy in California.
After the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, then, the film jumps straight to Richard Nixon's inauguration, interspersed with images of extreme police brutality against the strikers. So one hero is dead by a gun, a monster comes to power, and suddenly, violence breaks out against the oppressed. Sounds like a police state, doesn't it? And to top things off, there's a video interview of then Governor Ronald Reagan, the worst of all possible monsters, voicing his support of the mean grape growers. Questions, anyone?
I wish I could recommend this film, considering the subject matter, but unfortunately, I really cannot. When I evaluate new writers, I always tell them to watch their tone, so that they don't sound extreme, and so that they don't alienate their audience. A story like this one should be told with vigor, but with nuance, too. It might have worked better filtered through a different point of view, or at least shown some sort of secondary conflict that would offer dimension to Chavez. The negligent but loving father has been done before, and better, in other films. French filmmaker Julie Garvas' Blame it on Fidel, is just such a film, told from the point of view of the young daughter of two radical political activists in the early 1970s.
Instead, you might check out the documentary, Cesar's Last Fast, released earlier this year. Though I haven't seen it (I probably should), my feeling is that it's always better to see the man himself, rather than filtered through fiction. Either way, Chavez's story needs to be told. The question is, what is the best way to do so? Clearly, to me anyway, the biopic just isn't the right way. Let's hope the documentary is much better.
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