I was very fortunate to attend the SXSW premiere of Diego Luna's CESAR CHAVEZ about the life and struggles of the famous activist and labor organizer. If you're not familiar with the plight of the legendary advocate, Luna's film paints an intimate and very important portrait of the man who championed the lowest men and women on the economic totem pole in the late 60's.
The film begins with Chavez as he moves with his wife and brood of eight children to a new California town to work as a farm laborer. Though the conditions are terrible and the pay is weak, thousands of workers toil in substandard conditions to barely make ends meet. When Chavez and some of his cohorts begin to organize in an attempt to improve their stature in the multi-million dollar grape industry, the resistance they are met with is astonishing. With zero concessions made by the big bosses (who also happen to have law enforcement in their padded pockets) Chavez and his crew are forced to strike. Through subsequent demonstrations in California and abroad, a three-week hunger strike, and the eventual support of political leaders, Chavez and his crew are able effect real and lasting change that still informs the industry standards to this day.
CESAR CHAVEZ is a tremendously moving film. Luna perfectly captures the feel of the civil rights era. Though the story offers a few chuckles from time to time and gives a bit of insight into the family life of Chavez, the importance of the labor movement remains the prime focus throughout. As each step in the struggle is illustrated, Luna does an impressive job featuring all of the key players that worked hand in hand with Chavez to achieve the goal of reasonable pay and conditions for the grueling work of the farm laborer.
In the titular role, Michael Pena does an incredible job reenacting the exploits of the storied maverick. He perfectly embodies the stoicism and stubbornness of a man hell bent on changing the world. Peripheral players such as Rosario Dawson as activist Delores Huerta, America Ferrera as Mrs. Chavez, and John Malkovic as the head of the bosses fill out the cast. Each of their strong performances truly support the story and progression of the plight. Portraying real people in a biopic is tricky, but all the actors involved manage to skirt around impression territory and deliver heartfelt and compelling performances.
Following the screening, I was very honored to meet the real Delores Huerta at the Budweiser after party celebrating the film's premiere. She was so very gracious, discussing all of the changes the country has seen in her lifetime. On an interesting side note, I also learned that the Budweiser company was instrumental in helping provide era-correct bottles and signage that appear in the film. Apparently, the Chavez' were big Bud fans (who knew?!) and wanted the product aptly featured.
CESAR CHAVEZ is a wonderfully vivid and emotional tale of great historic importance. Whether you are interested in biopics or simply want to view a well-crafted historical film, Diego Luna's CESAR CHAVEZ will not disappoint.
Until next time,
Aka "Annette Kellerman"