César Chávez once said, “The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness is to sacrifice ourselves in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice.”
That may be a winning tactic for social change – the same approach was used by Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – but it doesn’t play well in Hollywood. So director Diego Luna’s biopic of the legendary Chicano labor organizer comes to us as a small miracle, a true hero’s journey that inspires without reaching for larger-than-life emotional crescendos. The result is a touching record of a key chapter in Chávez’s life – a cinematic corrido chronicling the successful effort to unionize agricultural workers in California vineyards in the 1960s.
The film deserves comparisons to classic film depictions of labor movements in America like Norma Rae and Matewan. For Hispanic audiences, however, César Chávez will stand alone. Shooting in Northern Mexico, Luna’s camera evokes the Central Valley’s dust, sun, and endless agricultural partitions with flair. John Malkovich creates a memorably fitting antagonist to Chavez, and Rosario Dawson’s Dolores Huerta deserves a lead role in a movie of her own. But this time the star is Michael Peña, capturing our loyalty, as Chávez himself would have, with steadiness and subtle charm.
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