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MOVIE REVIEW: Film 'Cesar Chavez' doesn't serve memory of the man or cause as well as it should

Cesar Chavez

(PG-13)

2 out of 4 stars

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Michael Pena stars as Cesar Chavez in “Cesar Chavez.”

At about the same time Cesar Chavez was ruffling the feathers of grape farmers in California, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was spearheading the American Civil Rights Movement and while both men achieved great things, it’s easy to understand why Chavez is not nearly as famous or iconic as King. As important as it was at the time, championing higher wages for fieldworkers could not quite match the quest for basic human dignity.

In the eyes of actor-turned-director Diego Luna, Chavez was easily the Latin-American equivalent of King but rather than put the emphasis on the man to sell the audience on that theory, he and writer Keir Pearson focus most of their attention on his cause. Instead of “Gandhi,” “Malcolm X,” “Milk” or “Dallas Buyers Club,” we get “Norma Rae” or “North Country” where something in the middle — such as Silkwood” or “Hunger” — would have probably worked better.

The only thing we know about Chavez (Michael Pena) prior to what takes place in the film is that his parents lost their Arizona farm during the depression. No information is given regarding how or why Chavez took it upon himself to butt heads with grape growers in his attempt to create a union and Pena — certainly under the instruction of Luna — lacks that certain “fire in the belly” passion that is required to rope in an audience mostly unfamiliar with what Chavez did.

We first get the impression that Luna and Pearson are unsure of their approach about 10 minutes in when the director inserts the first of about a dozen black and white newsreel clips that achieve in passing seconds what he couldn’t do in a little over 90 minutes. Luna could have easily avoided this situation by incorporating just the audio portions of the newsreels as radio or TV background audio, which would also have not taken us out of his film at regular intervals.

With present day northern Mexico substituting for 1960s California, Luna and his production team didn’t need to do much to attain a very convincing period-piece setting. Awash in distressed yellows and browns, the color palate is minimal and often takes on a welcomed and apropos sepia finish. All of the background players and those with non-speaking ethnic roles are actual Mexican farmers, so from a visual perspective, the film couldn’t look more authentic.

The film also suffers because too much attention is paid to a single 5-year-long event without any mention of Chavez’s earlier work pushing voter registration and later efforts where he organized protests against the use of pesticides, a controversial alliance he made with then president of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos and his position on immigration that probably wouldn’t sit well with today’s undocumented immigrants.

The two principal women in Chavez’s life — his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and frequent professional collaborator Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) — aren’t given much in the way of screen time and are essentially regulated to ceremonial “women behind the man” status.

As for Chavez’s principal adversaries, the filmmakers couldn’t be more broad, biased or one-sided. Composite characters played by John Malkovich (also a producer), Gabriel Mann and Julian Sands are given full single-dimensional, dastardly/oppressor status that borders on the laughable. It’s more than a safe assumption that farm owners at the time were probably less than honorable regarding their business dealings with their employees but not to the deeply callous degree portrayed in the film.

There is also no mention of the usually low profit margins or the multi-tiered costs associated with running a farm or how higher wages will affect the bottom line. It’s not unlike the current debate taking place between President Obama and the House of Representatives regarding a proposed increase in the U.S. minimum wage. Giving some people more almost always results in others losing their jobs and higher prices for goods and services. It’s not political; it’s basic supply-and-demand economic theory.

“Cesar Chavez” does not serve the memory of the man or his cause as well as it should or could and presents only a tiny sliver of his accomplishments in a most positive light with a tunnel vision perspective. It’s not exactly an historical whitewash but it comes dangerously close. (Pantelion Films)