Pure Intentions Aren’t Enough to Breathe Real Life Into Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez is a reverent and straightforward biopic that is content to hit the highlights.

The fearless passion that Cesar Chavez used to fight for the rights of migrant workers and become an icon in the Latino community is largely missing from Cesar Chavez, a reverent and straightforward biopic that is content to hit the highlights.

It’s a wonder that nobody has tackled the story of the civil-rights crusader on the big screen before, which makes this effort discouraging for its lack of depth or insight beyond the basics. Chavez’s story is less known than that of Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps because of some chronological overlap, but is just as powerful in some ways. Like King, Chavez advocated nonviolent boycotts and protests as part of his grassroots movement to overcome oppression, which sometimes made him unpopular.

The film chronicles Chavez (Michael Pena) in his younger days during the late 1950s, when he was a California farm worker and became politically active at a young age, fighting for various rights for underpaid Mexican and Filipino farm workers. With his rising influence, he founded with National Farms Workers Association with fellow labor leader Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). His commitment to the cause sometimes conflicted with Chavez’s responsibilities to his own family, including his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), and his children. But he remained active, leading a strike and a boycott of the grape industry in 1965 that included a personal fast.

No doubt the intentions here are pure, as the film isn’t subtle about its intentions to portray Chavez as a hero. But it’s also persuasive and moderately inspirational in the way it depicts him as a motivator and an orator who spearheaded his cause with both words and actions. In his second feature behind the camera, Mexican actor Diego Luna (who, coincidentally, directed a documentary about boxer Julio Cesar Chavez a few years ago) shows a sharp visual eye behind the camera. However, the watered-down screenplay by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Timothy Sexton (Children of Men) tends to tiptoe around some of the sociopolitical context in the story, and to reduce some of the key supporting characters to bit players.

For those less familiar, Cesar Chavez should at least provide an introduction to a man whose name is emblazoned on street signs and schools in cities around the country. Yet considering the magnitude of his legacy, the film also feels like a missed opportunity.