Cesar Chavez shows the pitfalls of recreating history through a distorted progressive lens.
This directorial effort from actor Diego Luna starts nobly enough, as Michael Pena plays well-regarded figure Cesar Chavez talking about the plight of workers in the CA fields. We watch as workers are forced to pay for the water they drink while enduring the long, hot days. We meet Cesar’s family, settling into a new home. We find Cesar’s intentions to be genuine in helping improve wages and working conditions, all seen through Diego’s up-front directorial narrative.
Cesar eventually decides to take on the landowners who employ the workers, the most prominent featured being Bogdanovich Senior played by John Malkovich, and decides to do so by means of non-violence.
Sadly, this is where the film’s nobility ends.
It becomes clear that it is slowly being hijacked by a modern progressive message, making the film a weave of the “struggle” workers face as “undocumented workers” (instead of calling them illegal) and the plight of being so. The film becomes much more concerned with the effort to prevent workers from unionizing than with diving deeper into Cesar’s personal life and views.
Soon, Cesar himself is relegated to the background as prominent liberal figures like Robert Kennedy visit CA, give speeches and hold hearings which echo many modern progressive talking points. The film also goes out of its way to repeatedly mock then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, portraying him as an incompetent fool. At one point, he’s shown eating grapes and edited in a way to make him appear “the greatest hypocrite to the working man.”
Was Cesar himself against illegal immigration? You won’t get any answers here. Instead you’ll find associates around him assuring workers, “If you work in the fields, you won’t get deported.” Did Cesar have a stance on Vietnam? Again, you won’t learn that in this movie–only a narrative that needs Cesar to drive the story as the main figurehead.
At one point, Cesar hires lawyer Jerry Cohen (played by Wes Bentley) to help with the cause, but even this subplot is quickly abandoned.
What you will get is one of the most glaring conspiracies ever seen on screen. Cops, local officials, and even city residents all engage in harassing and even harming the workers in the fields. Add in the landowners (who are portrayed as borderline inhuman) and you have a giant evil conspiracy committed to holding back the working man at any cost.
Workers are hit with cars, beaten on the streets, and have laws passed against their effort to unionize. I guess all these people had nothing better to do.
It soon becomes clear we’re no longer watching a biopic, but a modern union infomercial set in the past. Worker strikes occur to punish the landowners and companies who don’t give in to their demands. The wine industry in CA as a whole must be disrupted until all demands of the strikes are met. Anyone who opposes the strikes in the film is simply an evil tool of a corporate mindset.
There are no consequences for the union side; that only comes if you’re against them. The film is so one-sided that Cesar himself is eventually seen as an ineffective leader who can go longer find any more allies to work with. He can only push through an agenda through brute union force. What happened to his noble message of harmony and cooperation?
An interesting biopic could be made of Cesar’s life and lessons. Sadly, Cesar Chavez is not in that vein. It plays out as just another “us vs. them” progressive fable with no balance in the narrative.