‘Cesar Chavez’ is a biographical film about the iconic leader of the Chicano movement Cesar Chavez. The movie’s focus is mainly on Chavez as the Chicano labor leader. It’s focused on portraying Chavez’s leadership qualities as farm-workers fought for better working conditions. The film also depicts the early non-violent protests and boycotts that occurred between 1965 -1970 such as the Delano grape strike. Its crowning moment is when Chavez s signs the first major union contract. While the movie gets certain key historical facts right, there are a number of facts that are either misrepresented or are entirely omitted.
The film was able to successfully portray Cesar Chavez character through the great performance of Michael Pena. Cesar Chavez character is difficult to play since he had many extremes. He was soft spoken but passionate, he was determined in making decisions but still displayed caution and while inside he was seething with rage due to the mistreatment of his people, his outward character displayed calmness. All these characteristics that described Chavez were brought out in the film with great effectiveness making it a joy to watch. The film also accurately portrayed the two women, Helen Chavez and Rosario Dawson, who were monumental in the formation of the farm-workers movement (Ferriss 2002).
Other aspects of the movie that are accurately depicted are the settings of the farm lands and farm workers living quarters. The rural California scenes are accurately set with accurate representation of the barracks and the grape fields. Furthermore, the movie also succeeds in rendering the various diverse voices involved in the struggle. The union organizers with their different personalities and strategies are depicted accurately as well as the politicians and white liberals who surrounded Chavez. Even the growers are accurately portrayed with great success. Moreover, there are many moments in the film that make it memorable and great to watch such as the turning point in the film where Chavez is hesitant in having his National Farm Workers Association join the Filipino Farm-workers in their strike against the grape owners of Delano area. It is Chavez’s wife who finally pushes him into supporting the Filipino’s strike.
The film ‘Cesar Chavez’ got many historical facts right but there are several aspects of the movement that are grossly misrepresented while other key facts are omitted altogether. One of the most notable misrepresentations is the role played by Filipinos in the movement and especially the portrayal of Larry Itliong. Historically, Itliong played a vital role that was almost equal to Chavez’s role. Itliong was essentially Chavez’s right hand man. Larry Itliong was United Farm Workers Organizing Committee assistant director and his contribution to the farm workers was immense. In contrast the movie depicts a silent Itliong who was in awe of Chavez. The film constantly portrays Cesar Chavez as being a one-man movement. This is utterly incorrect as one of Cesar Chavez’s great abilities was in uniting people (Garcia 2012).
Other than refusing to recognize the input of Itliong in the movement, the film also fails to recognize the input and impact that Filipino American’s had in the movement. Although the Filipino’s held many strikes and participated in boycotts, their struggles and therefore their significance are grossly undermined in the film. For instance, the scene in which the contract that outlined reforms after the Great Grape Strike of 1965 is signed is rendered with Chavez alone signing the contract while Itliong is shown in the crowd smiling sheepishly. However, photograph evidence show that Itliong and Chavez sat together at the same table as the contract was being signed. In another scene Chavez addresses a crowd of people in a room that is depicted to be the Filipino American community centre of Delano. Although the meeting is obviously being held in Filipino’s territory, the room is shown to be full of Latinos with only a few of Filipino’s (including Itliong) huddled at the back of the room. The film completely neglects to recognize Filipino’s contribution and influence. Cesar Chavez is grossly indebted to Larry Itliong whose contribution included bringing his 30 year organizing experience to the table. He was also able to speak fluently in three foreign languages which made him an effective communicator and organizer for the farm workers movement (Shaw 2008).
Other notable omissions in the film include the refusal to acknowledge the contribution of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee which was critical in the initiation of the 1965 grape strike. The film also does omit the role played by white ministers such as reverend Jim Drake and students who played vital roles in launching and sustaining the movement. The film also distorts several historical facts such as in the scenes where Chavez is shown lobbying dock workers and even consumers into joining in the movements struggle. It was not by Chavez’s effort but by the extra-human effort of a young American volunteer, Elaine Elinson, that convinced the Scandinavian and British unions to support the movement by keeping American grapes out of Europe (Bruns 2011).
The film does well to bring to the fore the exploitive conditions that faced farm workers during the sixties. Although conditions for farm workers have improved since the formation of United Farm Workers (UFM) union, there are issues that still face these workers today. It is reported that at least two workers die each year due heat stroke suffered while working in the farms. There are some farms where the workers have no access to water or bathrooms. Wage theft is extensive and continues unabated. Although the film is successful in depicting Cesar Chavez as a hero that he was, it fails to show what happened after the signing of the major union contract. After the early victories, the UFW began to lose moral high ground and the political landscape changed. The union fractured and many gains of earlier years were lost. However, overall the film did an incredible job of highlighting the plight of farm workers, how these workers joined together to fight for better working conditions and in the process a legend, Cesar Chavez, was born.
- Bruns, Roger A. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Movement. London: ABC-CLIO, 2011.
- Ferriss, Susan. The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002.
- Garcia, Matthew. From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012.
- Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. New York: University of California Press, 2008.