Saturday, 10 October 2015

Cesar Chavez (2014)

Diego Luna's biopic of farm worker organizer and union activist Cesar Chavez made little impact here in the UK - in fact I'm 99.9% certain it went straight to DVD. It's a real shame but, when you consider Chavez has little impact, outside of the Latino community, in the US it's perhaps not very surprising. 

Cesar was an activist who came to prominence in the 1960s with the movement to unionise poor Mexican workers in the USA. Luna's film reminds us just how hard it is for the most vulnerable workers in our society to get the fair deal they deserve, a fact which remains shamefully true to this day. As Cesar (played by Michael Peña) says himself in the film at one point "I'm angry that I live in a world where a man who picks your food can't feed his family." An immigrant, Cesar came across the border from Mexico to the US, like many others, to seek work in the farms of California. They found work, but they also found poverty and exploitative conditions that would not have looked out of place a couple of centuries earlier - they were earning just a couple of dollars a day and were even denied toilets out in the fields because the growers, those land owning wine merchants, fresh produce and snack magnates (largely represented here by John Malkovich's composite character, an oily right winger by the name of Bogdanovich) claimed that Mexicans did not know how to use them! Undeterred, Cesar Chavez spoke out against the unfairness he saw, shaping a great movement for justice and equality for the immigrant Latino workforce, and he did this in a wholly pacifistic manner, employing peaceful protests and even going on hunger strike for many weeks. Alongside him in the campaign were his wife and children, who defied the growers and the law, risking imprisonment and often finding themselves under arrest or threatened and abused by strike breakers and bully boys eager to stop the unionisation and education of their previously cowed, silent workforce. Chavez becoming a co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association which at its peak represented the interests of 50,000 Mexican field workers in California and Florida. He received strong and influential support from Robert F Kennedy and even travelled to Europe, spreading the news of his work and the plight of his fellow migrants here in the UK, where he was supported by the TGWU, which the film shows.

Unfortunately, Luna's film falls into the trap many biopics of inspiring  and good men fall into and paints a rather reverential and ultimately somewhat dull picture of the man. There are brief glimpses of the flaws inherent in Cesar Chavez; how he devoted so much of his time to his politics at the cost of his family and how Cesar’s eldest son was bullied at school because of his father. But it's not enough sadly, and a voice over lamenting the time he did not spend with his family, principally the aforementioned son who bore the brunt of his radicalism, really doesn't cut it. Keir Pearson and Timothy J Sexton's script really needed to be bolder here and explore this side of him a little more to offer a more rounded and nuanced picture, but nevertheless this remains an inspiring film for those on the political left such as myself.

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