Monday, July 7, 2014

Cesar Chavez: The Movie

By David Luhrssen
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Cesar Chavez didn’t chase his own “dream,” the proudly stated goal of self-interested folks nowadays, but pursued a more fulfilling calling: justice for people who had none. Specifically: the farm workers of California, the people who bend over and pick the lettuce for our salads and the grapes for our domestic wine. In the early 1960s when Chavez began organizing them into what became the United Farm Workers, the workers were paid little, lived in shacks and in fear of stepping out of line.

Michael Pena stars in the 2014 film Cesar Chavez (out on Blu-ray and DVD). The screenplay by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton is structured as a blueprint for social action. In their telling, Chavez returns as a union organizer to the fields where he once worked at age 11 and finds nothing has changed. Entire families toil in the hot sun under the watchful eyes of the growers and local police. Chavez allies his Chicano workers with striking Filipino field hands (overcoming divisions) while invoking deep-seated cultural motifs and religious faith among his own people. Mariachi bands accompany protests led by banners of the Virgin Mary. When the sheriff accuses them of being Communists, Chavez laughs, “We’re Catholics.”

Trying to thwart violent retaliation against the violence of their employers, Chavez favored large-scale civil disobedience, playing to the media and using leaflets to get out the message in an age before the Internet. He was able to find support among other labor unions and the general public, mobilizing church and civil rights groups in his cause while calling for boycotts of growers who refused to bargain. As is often the case in two-hour historical dramas, the screenplay simplifies events while trying to remain true to the overall spirit of what occured. John Malkovich is outstanding, investing one of the story’s villains with his usual knife’s edge, sophisticated cynicism.

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