If anything, Diego Luna’s “Cesar Chavez” should be commended for not trying to tell Chavez’s 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 as a famed Hispanic civil rights activist who fought for basic human and labor rights for migrant workers in the 1960s and ‘70s. Instead, it focuses on the five-year period in which Chavez led a grape pickers’ strike/boycott in Delano, Calif., to get better wages and better working conditions.
When we first meet Chavez, he, 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 the focus on this 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’s motivation for wanting to be a civil rights activist in the first place.
At the very beginning, in what appears to be an interview, Chavez (Michael Pena) mentions how he was exposed firsthand to the injustices faced by the migrant workers when he worked in the fields when he was younger — that’s when he knew he would be an activist. This key bit of information is simply talked about, so 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 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, none of which carry much weight.
Furthermore, Luna struggles to create a cohesive narrative flow at times, as there are numerous awkward lapses in the film’s timeline.
Pena does what he can in the role, but ultimately, the script sort of lets him down. Chavez appears to be funny, charming and not afraid to go head-to-head with the myriad ignorant, rich, white jerks — such as a grape grower played by John Malkovich — that are opposing the strike. These are all good attributes, but 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 of Chavez, 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’s side. At times, you get the impression that the 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’s oldest son and how Chavez neglects him, too, which, again, isn’t given much time to blossom into anything lasting. This wouldn’t really be a problem, except that Luna ends the movie on a tender moment between the son and Chavez that’s well-intentioned but doesn’t feel entirely deserved.
Still, the film is a feel-good flick that sheds light on an important historical activist who did a lot of great work — despite falling into biopic clichés and having superficial characters.
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