Written by Markus Robinson, Edited by Nicole I. Ashland
Markus Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Rated PG-13 for some violence and language
Now playing at Camera 12 in San Jose, California:
Would it be weird to say that “Cesar Chavez” was a laugh riot? Well, for a film which depicts people being beaten and sprayed with pesticides, the script contained tons of laugh out loud lines of dialogue. OK, I’m not sure if that came off as completely insensitive or not, so I’ll just move on:
An independent production directed by Mexican actor/filmmaker Diego Luna, “Cesar Chavez” is an educational partial biography of (you guessed it) Cesar Chavez which chronicles his participation in the California (and abroad) civil rights campaigns during the 1960’s, which addressed fair wages and better working conditions for migrant farm workers, his infamous 25 day hunger strike and the UFWA (United Farm Workers of America) grape boycott.
While I did find myself really enjoying this movie, “Cesar Chavez” is yet another example of a PG-13 film which attempts to depict a rated-R snapshot of American history. On a technical level, Luna does display above average directorial chops and his film is overall more historically weighty than something like last year’s “42” (a PG-13 movie which glossed over many of the more violent atrocities of racial intolerance in the 1940’s) it is obvious that Luna does pulls some punches in an attempt to make the Cesar Chavez story accessible to a wider audience.
There are good biopics and there are bad biopics. The downfall of many biopics is that they take fascinating characters and simply tell their story, while failing to bring their world to life, failing to spark interest with an engaging back-story or failing to build an emotional connection with audiences. And while those types of biopics may be interesting to some, they usually alienate those who didn’t live through the events or may not be familiar with said character. Luna and Michael Pena, who plays Chavez, seem to understand this, as they come together to depict a Chavez that is completely 3 dimensional and complex. That said, Luna does not escape my praise without scrutiny, as he and screenwriters Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Timothy J. Sexton (Children of Men) fail to give Chavez much of a back-story; so much so that it feels as though “Cesar Chavez” is missing its entire first act (the story of how Chavez started down the civil rights road to begin with).
Pena’s performance stands as one of the more surprisingly pleasant aspects of this production. He nails the Chavez look and mannerisms, and when he speaks he sounds like a civil rights leader. And during the fasting sequences, Pena looks like a man who hasn’t eaten for a substantial amount of time. Although quite enjoyable in other movies such as “End of Watch” and “30 Minutes or Less”, his role as Chavez is by far my favorite.
Final Thought: This shouldn’t be a movie which only resonates with those who lived through the events, but if you have no idea who Chavez was going into this, for you the timeline may get a little choppy in the final act and questions may be raised about Rosario Dawson’s purpose in this movie since Dolores Huerta (a woman who played a massive role in La Causa) is hardly referenced here. Then again, if you are a Californian and don’t know who Cesar Chavez was, you should be ashamed of yourself to begin with. After recently sitting through a stretch of shockingly below average movies depicting the Mexican/Mexican-American/Chicano struggle (Filly Brown, For Greater Glory and A Better Life) I will say that I was quite entertained by this good, not great, biopic which salutes this important man and equally important moment in relatively recent California history.
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