The movie about The Great Person In History takes on all the movies about all The Great People In History and all the problems that come with those movies, problems that are infrequently solved in ways that satisfy the exhausting demands of accuracy, aesthetics, coherence and efficiency.
Part of the dilemma is that Great People In History have become great because they’re doing a lot of stuff. Unlike you and me, they don’t binge watch entire seasons of Game of Thrones and then go read the online recaps; they’re very busy accomplishing those accomplishments. Usually a dozen or more. In a row. Over decades. That sort of life requires a 600-page biography, at least one memoir, several documentaries, a miniseries and a least one competently executed biopic.
Director Diego Luna has decided to attack the last item on that list for Cesar Chavez. And it’s not half bad. Starring Michael Peña as Chavez, the man who helped organize California's farm workers in the 1960s for better wages and working conditions, it’s a film that wisely focuses on the highlights of the movement rather than the conditions that led the man to create that movement. If Chavez himself takes a backseat to the events he instigated, then that’s probably the way he’d want it anyway.
Moving through decade-long timeline, the film briskly details the development of the United Farm Workers, organized by Chavez, his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and activist Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson). From coalitions built with similarly struggling Filipino migrant laborers to non-violent demonstrations and marches, the now-famous grape boycott, clashes with police, white citizens and the government (complete with damning archival footage of Ronald Reagan calling the movement “immoral”), Luna never lets the action linger in one spot for long. There’s a lot to cover and hundred minutes to get it done.
While Ferrera is allowed at least one memorable moment of screen time, defiantly and repeatedly shouting “Huelga!” to provoke her own arrest for civil disobedience, Peña hovers in the center, quietly, preferring to communicate thoughtful intensity over showier acts of quantifiable greatness. This is always a risk, but it keeps the focus on the movement. And Luna amplifies that by combining more archival footage with an up-close-and-personal naturalism every time the workers hit the fields or the strike line, fusing the dramatic retelling to the history at its core.
What it lacks in dynamism it makes up for in respectful single-mindedness, aligning Chavez’s heroic story to the present and pushing a preference for the poor that has vanished not only from the discussion of social issues but from mainstream filmmaking, too. If its function is mostly history lesson, it’s a timely, well-made one, released into an era when labor unions are under attack, worker’s rights have eroded and corporate concerns dominate most discussions of how people earn their living. For that reason alone it should be shown to every McDonalds and WalMart employee immediately.