Though it is somewhat of a workhorse earnest film, Cesar Chavez gives a good sense of the impact that the activist had on the rights of modern farm workers. Michael Peña stars as Chavez, and the story wastes no time with over-exposition, dropping us into the 60s when he and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) decide that in order to fight for the rights of farm workers, they literally need to get their hands in the dirt. Chavez, his wife Helen (America Ferrera), and their EIGHT kids pile into a car and move to Delano, California.
By earning the trust of the Mexican fieldhands by becoming one of them (it is also explained that Chavez himself worked in the fields starting at age 11, before eventually joining the Navy), he starts to shake things up. The hard-working, poverty striken and uneducated workers are eager to hear how their rights are being violated, and that they actually have the right to some respect. First a credit union is started, and soon farm worker strikes are organized. The focus moves to the grape growers for wineries (led by crotchety, entitled white men, including the interestingly conflicted European-immigrant grower played by John Malkovich). Chavez figures if specific wineries can be targeted, and the word could get out to consumers that the wineries don’t care for their workers, than those who pay the wages may start to pay attention when their profits plummet. It works.
Peña is fine, if not particularly outstanding as Chavez. The story is more about the evolution of the National Farm Workers Association, and how the rights movement went through bumps, like unifying with the Filipino workers (who also suffered from the same issues), and the challenge of keeping the movement non-violent, which was so important to Chavez that he went on a hunger strike until his followers pulled it together. Dawson doesn’t get much to do as Huerta, but American Ferrera manages to bring spirit to the role of Chavez’s wife, who was involved in the movement, while trying to hold their family together.
Like the Mandela movie last year, Cesar Chavez is a pretty good movie about a very interesting man. I imagine a great movie may be may about him some day. In the meantime, this one will do.