Diego Luna’s new film about César Chávez, the Mexican-American civil rights activist who co-founded the United Farm Workers union, is that rare biopic that’s shorter and swifter than it should be. This turns out to be both a blessing and a curse.
Working from a script by Keir Pearson (Hotel Rwanda) and Timothy J. Sexton (Children of Men), the actor-turned-director narrows his focus on the major accomplishments of Chávez’s life from the early 1960s to 1970 (the march to Sacramento with striking farm workers; the successful grape boycott that stretched all the way to Europe). During that period, Chávez struck many blows against an agricultural industry that exploited its often-illiterate employees with backbreaking work, terrible conditions and poor pay and ended up on the cover of Time magazine for his trouble.
Luna also throws in minimal family drama — a couple of brief arguments between Chávez (Michael Peña) with his wife, Helen (America Ferrera), who in the film wants more of a role in the cause than her husband would like, and a troubled relationship between Chávez and his oldest son, who fumes at his father’s preoccupation with social justice instead of his family. Peña (End of Watch) plays Chávez as a mild-mannered but dedicated man, not a charismatic leader — a historically accurate choice, as Chávez wasn’t known for his fiery rhetoric — humanizing him and making him seem more like a real person than an icon.
So on one hand, Cesar Chavez, which is Luna’s second film as a director and first in English, never drags. Luna doesn’t deal with Chávez’s childhood except in a passing comment — “I was in the fields at 11,” he tells an interviewer — so you’re never waiting impatiently for him to engage in important historic events. On the other hand, the film’s briefness feels a little glib and makes you long for a little more context.
Whole stories have been gutted in the interest of time, notably that of Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the association with Chávez. Huerta is played by Rosario Dawson in the film, but her screen time is so limited she barely registers. If Luna’s movie is all you ever learn about César Chávez and the UFW, you wouldn’t even realize her contribution.
Still, with immigration reform a constant on the political front, the time has clearly come for a film about Chávez, and Luna’s film works well as an introduction to the man and his mission. The director says that’s his hope, that Cesar Chavez sends a new generation digging deeper into the story and taking its lessons on persistence, courage and commitment to heart.
Cast: Michael Peña, America Ferrera, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich.
Director: Diego Luna.
Screenwriters: Keir Pearson, Timothy J. Sexton
Producers: Pablo Cruz, Diego Luna, Lianna Halfon, Larry Meli, Russell Smith
A Lionsgate release. Running time: 98 minutes. Some violence, language. Playing at: area theaters.