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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Brief Thoughts: Cesar Chavez

I really enjoy putting my reviews together.  I honestly wish I could delve deeper into certain movies, but alas, I get incredibly busy and can sometimes only deal with movies to a briefer extent than I would prefer.  This is why I write these occasional "Brief Thoughts" posts on movies I have seen, as I want to at least offer some of my own perspective on them.  They may not be as polished, but I can at least get my opinions out there.  This "Brief Thoughts" post is a review of 2014's Cesar Chavez, starring Michael Pena and directed by Diego Luna.

Cesar Chavez: 3 out of 5

Cesar Chavez:  You cannot oppress someone who is not afraid anymore.

It is actually a little surprising that there has not already been a biopic about Cesar Chavez, but given that he is a notable civil rights activist that I have spent time studying, I am pleased that a film finally has been made about his journey and what he accomplished, regardless of how successful the overall film may be.  It may not stand among the best biopics, but there is enough good here to certainly recommend a viewing from anyone who enjoys these kind of stories being dramatically retold or at least wants to appreciate the talents of this fine cast being put on display in a film like this.

The film revolves around Cesar Chavez (Michael Pena) and his efforts to organize the California farm workers in an effort to challenge their employers over salary, working conditions, and treatment.  America Ferrera co-stars as Chavez's wife Helen; Rosario Dawson is fellow labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta; Wes Bentley is a friend and lawyer to Chavez, Jerry Cohen; and John Malkovich leads the opposition as the head of one of the many farms Chavez challenges.  The film goes over many of the different approaches Chavez took overcome various prejudices and struggles, while also trying to balance his family life, as he was a husband and father to eight children.


Similar to the Jackie Robinson film, 42, from last year, Cesar Chavez certainly has its heart in the right place, but whether it comes down to screenwriting, budgetary reasons, or issues revolving around a misunderstanding of scope, a film like this can only cover so much in so much time without either feeling like a straight-forward history lesson or the cliff-notes version of a much larger story.  The stakes are set fairly early and even those who are not familiar with Chavez will know how to interpret what is going on and the basic history revolving around it, but with sites set on a few particular events that are the ones given the most notice in history books, mini-TV specials, etc., having a focus on important events that spanned many years only goes so far in a fairly short feature. 

Both films do a fine job of putting an actor into the shoes of its hero (I look forward to seeing Chadwick Boseman's take on James Brown later this year, but his Robinson was solid, despite that film's issues).  For Cesar Chavez, Michael Pena does a wonderful job at portraying the soft-spoken nature of this man, as he certainly has not been described as a fiery leader or one who relied on impassioned pleas matched by a booming voice.  From what I know, Chavez was a reserved, non-violent individual with grand ideas and lots of supporters who simply respected his efforts and found him informed and tenacious enough to stand behind.

The issue comes from writer Keir Pearson and director Diego Luna not wanting to go much deeper than they seem to feel they need to, in an effort to really show us what inspired Chavez.  The film is only 100 minutes and that is enough to show us the highlights, throw in a few elements of nuance for the sake of the actors involved, and even make the effort to show some of the more personal sides of Chavez, given the subplot involving his oldest son, but it is all surface stuff really, with more of a desire to serve as a general crowd-pleaser, rather than a greater character study or a more in-depth examination on the struggle itself.  Some may think I am asking for what could amount to a less entertaining film or one that steps too far away from a film that wants to hit at the core ideas in the most accessible way possible, but look at films like Malcolm X or even Zero Dark Thirty (which, granted, is less of an actual 'biopic', but still fits).  I am not asking for a 3-hour journey, every time I have the chance to see a biopic of a famous individual, but I also can't deny that a film like Cesar Chavez is less impactful than other, more creative, biopics.

As I said, Pena is very good with his handle on Chavez though, and along with the fine work from the other actors involved, who only get so much to do, but at least keep them fairly interesting, the film works at showing a struggle and the group of people that helped a segment of the nation for good reason.  Diego Luna does his best, though I can see where he can improve in the future as a director, once he finds a better way to portray a grounded reality, without simply sticking the camera very close to things.  Cesar Chavez may not be the most impactful biopic out there, but it at least puts his story out there in a decently confident manner.

Cesar ChavezThe fight is never about grapes or lettuce.  It is always about people.



Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS4.
He also co-hosts a podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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