The story of Cesar Chavez is a familiar one, especially to anyone living in the Southwest. That's why, with many others, I was excited to see his story come to the big screen during the SXSW Film Festival. I was even more excited when I heard it was directed by Diego Luna, best known for his roles in films such as Milk and Y Tu Mama Tambien. Unfortunately, that excitement fizzled, asLuna's Cesar Chavez seems to care more about treating Chavez with reverence and accuracy than being emotionally moving.
If you're unfamiliar with the plot, Cesar Chavez tells the story of the famous civil rights leader and labor organizer who fought to secure a living wage for farm workers in California, primarily minorities. Through a policy of non-violence, Chavez inspired millions of Americans to take up the fight for social justice on farms and became a beacon of inspiration for Latinos everywhere. Doesn't that sound like it would make the most epic film? What he did is right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr.
As much as I tried to connect with the film, it lacked passion. That's not to say the cast didn't try their hardest. I was most impressed with the lead females of the film. Rosario Dawson as Dolores Huerta, Cesar's right-hand woman, was fierce and inspirational. America Ferrara as Cesar's wife, Helen Chavez, was equally inspiring, and she infused her scenes with a great mixture of emotion and perseverance, often in the face of her own husband. Michael Pena leads the film in the titular role, but I often found him difficult to connect to as a leader of a movement. John Malkovich, also a producer of the film, appears as big bad vineyard owner Bogdanovich Senior and does a stellar job.
The acting and plot is there, but the script is incredibly limiting. As historically important as Cesar Chavez is, it's difficult to translate his accomplishments, such as getting a contract signed, into a compelling film. The central figure himself is so deified that his story becomes boring to watch. It was obvious at SXSW that Diego Luna and the cast care so much about this film "“ and they should. Regrettably, that passion doesn't translate to the screen. I would love to see Diego Luna direct something else and obviously all the actors did as best they could. Most of all, I would love to see a film about Cesar Chavez done right, perhaps with a little less reverence and a little more punch.