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Out of the Fields, Onto the Screen: What ‘Cesar Chavez’ Gets Wrong About the Labor Movement | The Nation

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Out of the Fields, Onto the Screen: What ‘Cesar Chavez’ Gets Wrong About the Labor Movement

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Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez in 1975. (AP Photo, File)

Cesar Chavez, the new feature film about the Mexican-American labor leader and his United Farm Workers union (UFW), has met with a lukewarm response from critics. Reviewers are right to malign its low production values and formulaic plotting. There are voiceovers, clumsy exposition, even a subplot where Chavez (Michael Peña) is forced into the hackneyed archetype of workaholic dad who comes to regret that he and his son “never got a chance to go fishing together.” Only John Malkovich’s turn as the arch-villain vineyard-owner stands out from the pedestrian acting (did Malkovich’s right-wing convictions help him play such a convincing union-buster?) But it would be a mistake to stress the film’s aesthetic limitations at the expense of questioning its version of UFW history and conclude, in the words of one review’s headline, “Inspiring man, uninspired movie.” The film’s most insidious failings are not cinematic but political.

Some aspects of the film’s politics are commendable. It’s gratifying to see a pro-labor film that does not flinch at vilifying the rich or portraying their deadly violence against striking workers. In a few respects the film is admirably nuanced, managing, for example, to concisely present the arcana of labor law and secondary boycotts. Against the reduction of the UFW to its Mexican-American majority, the film reminds viewers that Chavez was drawn into his first big strike by Filipino workers and organizers, rather than vice versa. Two of the women in the UFW inner circle, Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) and Helen Chavez (America Ferrera), are cast in a heroic light; one of the film’s only implied critiques of Chavez concerns his sexism.

The problem is that the producers, eager for a hero and obeisant to the Cesar Chavez estate (which controls the rights to his “name, voice, image, and likeness, speeches and writings”), transform the collective struggle of tens of thousands of workers (and, to a lesser degree, millions of boycotters) into the moral journey of a single man. Such telescoping is endemic to the genre, and it would be unfair to expect a film to capture decades of history and thousands of lives in a hundred minutes. Yet the objection is worth stressing in the case of Cesar Chavez. The film’s hagiography is not just generic but a carbon copy of Chavez’s own press strategy, which was so dependent on messianic tropes and visual media that it almost constituted the rough draft of a biopic. Thus, the film does not even aspire to create a mythology but only to entrench a familiar one. The history that the film represses—in keeping with the official UFW narrative—is so extensive and consequential that the film passes from merely incomplete to misleading and propagandistic. To understand what is missing, and why it matters, we must compare the film with a less varnished history.

* * *

The film’s narrative centers on the five-year Delano grape strike and boycott, concluding in 1970, with the signing of union contracts with many of California’s table-grape growers. A series of mostly voiceover soliloquies by Chavez hammer home the film’s final lessons. Skeptics warned that “sooner or later, we would fall back into the poverty and desperation of our forefathers. But we didn’t.” Because “once social change begins, it can’t be reversed…We’ve seen the future, and the future’s ours.” This hopeful teleology is reinforced by the film’s closing titles, which provide a minimal epilogue consisting only of victories.

But if the story of Chavez and the UFW proves anything, it is that very little in history is truly irreversible. At its early 1970s peak, the organization represented more than 40,000 workers under 150 different contracts. But by late 1973, the UFW—still excluded from federal labor law and harried by Teamster membership raids—had already lost their grape contracts and shrunk to just 5,723 members. Pressed as much (or more) by rank-and-file activists as by Chavez’s centralized authority, the union generated enough dynamism to pass the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (an extension of New Deal–style protection to the state’s farmworkers) and to work out a ceasefire with the Teamsters.

But in a tragic third act, Chavez’s jealousy of independent worker power and his indifference to organizing brought about irreparable damage to the union. Chavez explained his shift from organizing to lobbying in 1985: “In the old days we would say ‘Could you come with us to the picket line?’ Now we say ‘Could we get on your mailing list?’” When independent efforts (like the immigrant-led La Alianza Campesina) tried to organize where Chavez wouldn’t, the UFW interfered with their fundraising and tried to get their leaders fired. The union’s downfall—exacerbated, to be sure, by Republican resurgence and corporate restructuring of the agriculture business—was in large part its own doing.

Today the union claims only about 5,000 workers. Many members, writes historian and activist Frank Bardacke, “work under contracts with wages and benefits not much different from the current low standards in the California fields”—standards low enough to sometimes compare with the pre-UFW 1960s. And given the Arizona-born Chavez’s resistance to engaging with later waves of undocumented Mexican immigrants (not to speak of his publicly calling them “wetbacks,” or his subordinates’ physical assaults on border-crossers), the union has an extremely limited presence, even as memory, in some of today’s most important farmworker communities. A UFW-led strike is inconceivable today, at least without large and sustained independent worker activism of the kind Chavez always resisted.

So the UFW’s achievements were impermanent, and Chavez’s autocracy played a key part in the union’s demise. The film, however, depicts no meaningful intra-union debate—much less debates in which Chavez is wrong. The only serious competing political voices belong to Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta, members of his small inner circle (and, respectively, his wife and sister-in-law). The most affecting shots of mass actions are not staged shots but intercut newsreel footage from the 1960s. The film features just one memorable scene in a union hall, and even here union democracy is far from the agenda: Chavez harangues a restive rank-and-file and announces that he will fast to atone for the workers’ imperfect commitment to nonviolence. The whole issue of nonviolence is thus transformed into a personal matter: Chavez’s clash with his son over whether to fight back against racist bullies at school carries more narrative weight than tactical debate. We see Chavez run to place his own body, Christ-like, between militant strikers and company goons. “The fight isn’t with the growers,” Chavez proclaims during a starvation-epiphany, “it’s with ourselves.”

This failure to convincingly render collective action may be partly a consequence of the film’s modest budget ($10 million). Last year’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, an otherwise comparable effort that cost more than three times as much, was far more successful in visually evoking the power of the politicized crowd. But there is also a historical and political logic to the film’s difficulty in depicting the rank-and-file struggle in the fields. If the film had focused more attention on the workers, it would have to acknowledge multidimensional conflicts that resist easy resolution. Take, for instance, the reality behind the film’s depiction of the nonviolence issues. As Bardacke documents in Trampling out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, Chavez sometimes condoned the sabotage of production and the intimidation of strikebreakers. Indeed, “condoned” is a conservative choice of verb: these chingaderas, or dirty tricks, were often directed by his first cousin Manuel, a career grifter with a working knowledge of Molotov cocktails. Chavez’s inaugural fast, ostensibly a rebuke to exceedingly forceful militants, was itself at least partially a stunt to avoid legal trouble concerning his responsibility for vandalism and harassment.

Another example: in the film, we hear the growers mutter that no real strike is taking place. Despite increasing national attention to the consumption of grapes, the union had actually failed to have much of an effect on agricultural production. The viewer will presume that the growers’ charges are ungrounded, since she has seen nothing but unanimous support for the UFW among farmworkers. But the bosses’ complaint points to a very real ambiguity: even during the heroic years, the strikes were often symbolic, and UFW militants were a minority. Compared to the massive nationwide consumer boycott of grapes, relatively few workers picketed the fields and many kept working— often, there weren’t even formal picket lines to cross. To get around this lack of hegemony in the fields, the union leadership invested increasing importance in the boycott. This allowed them to build a new and large constituency as well as a stronger revenue stream, but it kept them remote from the large numbers who kept working throughout the strike. By leaving his decisions unquestioned, the film chooses the easier path of echoing Chavez’s denial that any real conflicts—between rank-and-file and leadership, between UFW and non-UFW workers, and between the goals of a national advocacy movement and a labor union—even existed.

* * *

Cesar Chavez, like the UFW’s traditional self-representation, draws on enduring Popular Front depictions of farmworkers by John Steinbeck, James Agee, and Walker Evans. But a better film might have taken its cues from Joan Didion’s chronicles of California’s bizarre, protracted post-–Summer of Love hangover. Chavez was not a murderer like Jim Jones, the erstwhile civil rights activist whose People’s Temple shared space with the UFW in the liberal coalition around Governor Jerry Brown. Nor was he as consummate a cynic as Hollywood’s L. Ron Hubbard. But his messianic pretensions, incorporated uncritically by the film, placed the union on a similarly disastrous course.

The UFW had always drawn on religious motifs—fasts instead of hunger strikes, pilgrimages instead of protest marches, the Virgen de Guadalupe instead of the hammer and sickle. These tactics were controversial, but they were undeniably effective in mobilizing an overwhelmingly Catholic workforce and winning allies among liberal clergy and parishioners. By the late 1970s, Chavez had found a different model, “new religions”—less euphemistically, cults with no connection to Mexican-American collective life and little pragmatic relevance beyond solidifying his personal control. Borrowing methods directly from Synanon, a Santa Monica rehab program-cum-criminal syndicate, Chavez instituted an abusive form of “group therapy” as a central routine for UFW staff. “The Game,” as the practice was known, fostered collective loyalty by mercilessly exposing and exploiting each individual’s insecurities and imperfections. Reflecting on his role in a particularly devastating session—pre-scripted by Chavez to purge dozens of staffers—UFW Secretary-Treasurer Gilbert Padilla admitted, “I was half a Moonie.” Three years later, according to Padilla’s own account, Huerta and Chavez would push Padilla out for relaying rank-and-file complaints to the union’s board.

A film that acknowledged these absurd and disheartening events would have been politically richer and dramatically more compelling. It would not have to villainize Chavez, just recognize his undeniable flaws and the tragedy of his full trajectory. But there are reasons why a Chavez-lionizing biopic might have been an appealing choice in 2014. Chavez’s coalition-building has resonances today. By drawing on consumer anxieties about pesticides, he found himself part of the 1970s-California birth of modern foodie-ism (the film’s closing titles describe him as the founder of a “fair food movement”). By conceiving non-workers as stakeholders in the union, and looking to them when organizing at the point of production was difficult, he anticipated the AFL-CIO’s recent move to make non-labor groups like the NAACP and Sierra Club active constituents. Most famously, Barack Obama adopted the UFW’s slogan, “si, se puede”—idiomatically, “yes, we can”—as a way to link his 2008 campaign to the militancy of the past as well as the demographics of the future.

Many of those involved with the movie seem motivated by a motley array of such presentist concerns. The film’s Mexican backers, including actors Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, want to forge a common identity for “Mexicans, this side or that of the border,” even to “put pressure on immigration reform.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg will sponsor showings of the film through his lobbying group FWD.us, which, as Kate Losse has detailed, marries advocacy for “skilled” immigrants while proposing “to secure borders with drones, radar, fencing, and 20,000 new border agents.” The film’s American production partner, the liberal “social issues”–focused Participant Media, get to show their support a labor struggle of the past while they continue to produce propaganda, like Waiting for Superman and the upcoming Teach, against the unions of today. And Chavez’s heirs, who still control the UFW’s letterhead and draw salaries from its non-profit accounts, have obtained another round of good press.

Given the shadow it casts on the present, it would be nice to believe that Cesar Chavez’s legacy is unambiguous and that his accomplishments largely endure. Speaking the same year the Delano grape strike began, the West African anticolonial leader Amilcar Cabral addressed just such temptations, famously telling his cadre to “tell no lies [and] claim no easy victories.” This is a high standard to demand of anyone—let alone the makers of a commercial biopic. But if we want to get our bearings in the offscreen world, Cabral’s dictum is no less important than “si, se puede.

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