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Ebiri on Cesar Chavez: This Biopic of the Iconic Labor Leader Fails to Get Its Hands Dirty

Cesar Chavez makes for a fine history lesson, but as drama, it leaves something to be desired. Starring Michael Peña, this portrait of the iconic Mexican-American labor leader has noble intentions, and you could do worse than show this film to a group of kids curious about Chavez’s accomplishments. (An even better choice might be the excellent new documentary Cesar’s Last Fast, which focuses on Chavez’s final act of resistance in 1988, a 36-day fast.) But the ultimate effect of this film, directed by actor Diego Luna, is curiously cold — it never transcends the hagiographic nature of its material, despite a talented cast and a compelling subject.

Instead of telling Chavez’s whole life, the film starts in 1962, when he founded the National Farm Workers Association. As a community organizer, Cesar (Michael Peña) is staggered to learn that the Hispanic farm workers he sees own nothing, can’t read or write, and have to force their kids to work to scrounge together a living. So, determined to “get his hands dirty,” Cesar whisks his family — his wife Helen (the excellent America Ferrara) and his eight kids — from a comfortable suburban life and plops them in Delano, among the migrant laborers working the fields of California’s powerful growers. He wants to be close to the action, and to be breathing the same air as the people he’s trying to help. The family isn’t exactly pleased about this. “Which team plays for Delano?” asks his bitter teenage son Fernando when dad informs them they’re leaving for the middle of nowhere.

The early scenes of Cesar's organizing have a stirring immediacy: Luna's camera focuses on hands, faces, feet, shoulders — the corporeal building blocks of manual labor. But as these efforts become a movement, we enter the humdrum world of Biopic As Usual: Lyrical long shots of marching protesters, stoic confrontations with authorities, newsreel footage, and cut-aways to onedimensional, villainous business interests toasting Richard Nixon. (Though let it be said that co-producer John Malkovich gives it the old college try as a particularly hateful grower named Bogdanovich; no one does a casual sneer better than this man, and he enlivens the proceedings whenever he’s onscreen.)

Peña is a fine actor, and he conveys Cesar's drive with impressive steadiness, but the rest of the portrait never quite coheres. It feels too mythic, and we get very little sense of Cesar Chavez as a person. If we are to believe this movie, his only real failing was that he cared too much, that he was too devoted to his cause. That may well have been the case, and the last thing anyone wants is for a portrait larded up with soap-opera theatrics to give it "human interest." But it's possible for a biopic to walk the fine line between myth and psychology: witness the self-doubt and even shame expressed in Spielberg's Lincoln, or the desperate need for self-actualization and acceptance portrayed in Spike Lee's Malcolm X.

Cesar Chavez does attempt some similar shading in its portrait of Cesar's troubled relationship with his older son Fernando (Eli Vargas), who wants to live an ordinary life, resents getting picked on at school, and feels neglected by his father. But these exchanges come off as didactic, too; we don't walk away from these scenes with a sense of Cesar's carelessness, but rather of Fernando's ignorance. It’s almost as if the film is afraid to suggest that Cesar Chavez might have been a human being, or that he might have ever been mistaken about anything. And how odd, even tragic, that there's more human interest in the contemptible Bogdanovich’s exasperation with his own son — a clueless scion who’s driving the family business into the ground — than in Cesar's interactions with his own family. Cesar Chavez may have its heart in the right place, but it should have taken Chavez’s own advice to heart: It fails to get its hands dirty with the hard work of telling a story that feels like it’s about real people.

Photo: Pantelion Films