SXSW Film Review – Cesar Chavez
Doing a film about a historical figure is always a difficult gamble. On one hand you hope to introduce them to a new generation, and on the other, try to humanize the individual, and not get caught in deifying or demonizing, as it is so easy to do. When I went to see Cesar Chavez at SXSW, it was out of an interest in learning more about him, because while I have a general knowledge about him and his struggle, I didn’t know much about the details. After all, as a historical figure, Cesar Chavez is one of the more noteworthy in American history: Streets are named after him. Holidays exist in his honor. He is a pretty big deal. Additionally, I wanted to check out the directorial debut of Diego Luna, as I have been a fan of his acting for a long time.
For those not familiar with Cesar Chavez, he was a civil rights leader who fought for the rights of migrant farm workers starting in the 1950s after his family had been forced to do that kind of labor. At the screening, Diego Luna spoke about the years it took to get the film to the screen and the challenges of getting it just right. There is no question that he is passionate about the subject and his hard work clearly translates to the finished product. Chavez comes through as a very powerful inspiration, though a little bit two dimensional.
Luna clearly has a bright future ahead of him as a director. As someone who has literally grown up in from of the camera, the transition appears quite natural for him. As a first-time director, the finished product here feels quite polished, but is missing a certain “it” factor. Perhaps the problem is in translating his passion for the subject to a greater audience. There is no question about his admiration for Chavez, but the conflict in the movie is a little off. Telling a story about a flawless individual is not going to engage a lot of people beyond the target audience. It will be intriguing to see how his career developers from here. After spending years completing this project will he direct films for other people or simply stick to projects that have a significant importance to him? Regardless, if the only challenge he has is finding the heart of a project, then he is in a pretty solid position.
In doing a historical motion picture, one of the most important pieces is getting the right cast to recreate it. Consider Lincoln. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis seems like a no-brainer for any movie, but the supporting work by individuals like Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field made the movie, for a lot of people. In the case of Cesar Chavez, Luna was able to pull together a very well-rounded cast, led by Michael Peña in the titular role. Peña has been quietly providing great work as a supporting actor for years (check out him in End of Watch for a reference), so it is not only nice to get to see him get a lead opportunity, but do a great job taking advantage of it. The problem wasn’t with Peña, it was with the telling of Chavez’s story: He seems too flawless, and by having him be so flawless, it makes it feel less human. Except for a sub-plot featuring his son, every decision Chavez makes seems to be the right one.
One of the more overlooked parts in biopics is the antagonist, and, to counter a great actor like Peña it is hard to do better than John Malkovich, who shows up as the main opposition to the migrant workers. As far as I can tell, he is an amalgamation of the fight against Chavez, so he isn’t significant historically, but there are few actors better at doing evil than Malkovich, so it is understandable why you would want him in the film (and as a producer). Unfortunately, since his character isn’t as historically rich, Malkovich is also not given a lot to work with, though it feels like they were trying. His character has a rags-to-riches story, and because of it, feels like all the immigrants should be able to do the same. It provides a little more depth to what otherwise could be just a generic rich-vs-poor storyline.
While those roles felt a bit short changed, other historical figures benefited from the movie. Major figures from the fight for migrant worker rights, such as Cesar’s wife Helen Chavez (America Ferrera), and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), his cofounder of the National Farm Workers Association, are given a moment in the spotlight. In contrast to the notoriety of Cesar Chavez, the female leaders suffer from being somewhat overlooked historically and are given a chance to show the significance of their contribution to the fight. Ferrera, in particular, gives as much effort at Peña, completely throwing herself into her part.
Much like with prequels, the biggest problem with historical biopics is that the ending is common knowledge: Lincoln gets shot at the theater; Jackie Robinson becomes a beacon for change; and Gandhi proves the power of non-violence. This doesn’t necessarily make the film pointless, but it requires an emphasis on quality storytelling rather than surprise twists and turns. There are a lot of things to like about Cesar Chavez—a meaningful story, solid acting, and great production value—for a first-time director Diego Luna did a very impressive job. But at the end of the day, I don’t really feel like I understand the man much better than I did before. With the exception of the tumultuous relationship with his son (which, honestly, was a very small side-plot), it really made it feel like Chavez had no flaws, making him appear more like a caricature than a person. Beyond the individuals though, the film is a good one to see for the historical context. Chavez was one of the most important civil rights leaders in American history and it is worth knowing about because, as the Winston Churchill quote goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
While the film might not have lit my world on fire, the screening ended up being a pretty remarkable experience. Before it even started, there was a buzz of energy unlike almost any film I’ve ever seen at SXSW. People were chanting Cesar Chavez’s name before the screening even began. After the screening, they brought up the real Dolores Huerta and one of the sons of Cesar Chavez during the “Q&A time.” I say Q&A time in quotes because that never materialized. The audience was so amped by the end of the movie it turned into more a political rally than anything else. It was hard not to be awed by the experience; the energy was infectious.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zeo-q-8MOQ4&w=560&h=315]