Let’s face it: the initial push to get Latinos interested in attending the opening weekend of Diego Luna’s “César Chávez” worked. From White House trips to social media chats, everyone in my social circles was fully aware that Luna’s film about the heroic labor leader was coming out the weekend of March 28, just three days before Chávez’s birthday (March 31, 1927). Many said they would go catch the film in an actual movie theater, invite a few friends and make it a community event. We all also hoped that Luna’s film would triumph, that it could be a Latino “Malcolm X” movement, a defining stake to prove that more stories like Chávez’s need to be told.
Expectations were high. Really high.
Sadly, the execution was low, resulting in a safe and mediocre film.
Luna took the Hollywood route (no surprise there), instead of making a bolder choice—direct a more complexed and nuanced film about how a group of farmworkers in California made national and international news all because of grapes. THAT actual story was a big part of Luna’s film, but it was clouded and hidden by other story lines. The boycott story, from its origins to its victorious resolution, was by far the most gripping part of the movie. “How will they pull this off?” I kept asking myself as I watched, even though I already knew a lot about the strike and the boycott. THAT was the story and should have been the only one. Instead, Luna took us to other distracting (and boring) subplots, specifically the relationship Chávez (played admirably by Michael Peña) had with his son, Fernando (Eli Vargas). When I saw Fernando’s character on a golf course, I shook my head.
I can understand why such an artistic choice was made —trying humanize a historic figure is common in Hollywood biopics— but not at the expense of the bigger story. The best of “César Chávez” was great storytelling: when the focus was on the strike and the boycott. For example, when we see Peña’s character interacting with farm workers wanting better for their children (an opening scene all in Spanish) or when he confronted a sheriff over the Bill of Rights (boom). The struggle to strike, the in-fighting regarding strategy, the violence that occurred and even when Sen. Robert Kennedy (played by Jack Holmes with one of the most Kennedy-like accents ever) showed up to support the farm workers. These were the scenes that needed more exploration, more tension and ultimately, more drama. Cases in point: Luna never even had Peña as Chávez and Holmes as Kennedy talking to each other. Chávez’s fasting scenes lacked any emotional investment. There was no real interaction between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” (led by the always creepily talented John Malkovich). The scenes of workers getting gassed and shot at were so minimal, it’s as if Luna didn’t want to take the time to make us care about these atrocities. Great drama needs real tension. The movie never fully embraced such a basic tenet of storytelling.
The lack of a clear plot should not fall on Peña. He worked with what he had and portrayed Chávez as a quiet yet humble leader. Not giving Peña enough nuggets to portray several sides of Chávez falls on Luna and screenwriters Keir Pearson (“Hotel Ruwanda”) and Timothy J. Sexton (“Children of Men”). The screenplay lacked authenticity. It chose to gloss over some of the more dramatic parts of Chávez’s life during this period, and in the end, the movie soured. It’s almost as if Pearson and Sexton didn’t want to spend time about the more compelling challenges to La Causa: pragmatism vs. hero worship; “divide and conquer” vs. unity; violence vs. non-violence; Filipino vs. Chicano vs. Mexicano; “wetbacks” vs. union. The script read as if it the final ending was inevitable, a done deal. I wanted less of the done deal and more of how La Causa achieved its initial goals.
Which is the movie’s biggest problem. Key figures such as Dolores Huerta (played by Rosario Dawson), Helen Chávez (América Ferrera) and Delano’s Filipino workers just became outside observers to Peña’s Chávez character. Sure, there was tension here and there, but it was never sustained tension. For example, when Helen Chávez’s character offered to be arrested, we see a jealous César Chávez seeing his man pride armor getting chinked. It was a few interesting minutes between the Chávez couple, but after that, nothing. As for Huerta, her character was never developed, and that was a shame. In a movie about César Chávez, a character like Dolores Huerta is not a secondary character. You would think that Luna could have explored this relationship some more. I mean, Huerta is still alive. She was there. She lived it. (Oh yeah, I forgot that Huerta was reportedly never consulted to offer her insights to the film.)
In the end, the movie was only 101 minutes long, and maybe that explains why it never really satisfied. One of the biggest worker rights stories in the history of the United States got only 101 minutes of Hollywood air time. Given its long list of producers (Canana Films, Equipment & Film Design, Imagenation, Mr. Mudd, Participant Media), distributors (Lionsgate, Pantelion Films and Participant Media) and a big “Televisa Cine” who all had to be acknowledged even before the movie even began (awkward), you would think that some more money would have been raised to make this movie at least 120 minutes.
When Chávez declares predictable victory at the end of the movie, my reaction was, “That’s it?” I got more emotional watching Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers” or Kurt Russell in “Miracle.” The biggest moment of victory in “César Chávez” just got a shoulder shrug, and that is tragic, especially since Luna had a chance to take what happened in the 60s and early 70s and connect it to what is happening today. He could have confronted Chávez’s critics as well as how many neo-nativists want to remind everyone that Chávez was against undocumented workers and is just a hypocrite of the movement. That would have earned Luna some major props and it would have been fearless. Instead, a potential “Latino Malcolm X” turned into a straight-to-Netflix choice.
But I guess Luna’s choice was set from the very beginning. This was never about a history lesson:
I would start crying, because from Day 1 I said, ‘I’m not going to do a history lesson.’ … Every time [teachers] come to me and say, ‘Why did you leave this out? Why did you not talk about this?’ I go, ‘Listen, film is not a history lesson.’ Film is in fact about engaging emotionally … and it’s about having a good time in the cinema. It’s about entertaining. Cinema can bring some curiosity for people to go and investigate a little more about Cesar. But film shouldn’t be teaching you. At least that’s not the film I like watching.
In this case, Luna made the wrong decision, and maybe he was the wrong person to direct this film. “César Chávez” should have been more of a “history lesson,” because that was by far the most enjoyable and dramatic part of the movie.
Nonetheless, the one good thing that IS happening: people are talking. Here are just a few of the comments I have seen in the last few days that I would tend to agree with:
— Mark Archuleta (@Mark_Archuleta) March 30, 2014
“It was an okay film. Michael Peña’s (Cesar Chavez) performance was kind of flat. Dolores Huerta and the Filipino farm workers were downplayed in this film. I encourage people to see it as it’s an important part of our history.”
“I just saw the movie “CESAR CHAVEZ”
And I invite all my brothers and sisters
Please go see it and support the life
Of a powerful man that stood tall
For equality, fairness, and justice
And of course our champion of integrity
La voz de Los invisibles speaks loud and clear
Viva la RAZA
— Carlos Santana”
In the end, Latinos should go and see this movie, and after that, have real discussions about it. My biggest concern is this: at what point do Latinos go beyond supporting mediocre movies and when will we get content that is outstanding and thought-provoking? “César Chávez,” as well-intentioned as it was, became just another ok film with poor plot choices.
I no longer want “ok.” I want “superior” and “top-notch.” I want “authentic.”
We will get there.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Julio (Julito) Ricardo Varela (@julito77) founded LatinoRebels.com in May, 2011 and proceeded to open it up to about 20 like-minded Rebeldes. His personal blog, juliorvarela.com, has been active since 2008 and is widely read in Puerto Rico and beyond. He pens columns on LR regularly. In the last two years, Julito represented the Rebeldes on CBS’ Face the Nation, NPR, Univision, and The New York Times. Currently, he is a digital producer for Al Jazeera America’s The Stream. The views expressed in any of the LR columns written by Julito on this page do not reflect the editorial stance of Latino Rebels or Al Jazeera America. His opinions are his own and his alone.