The new biopic of Cesar Chavez makes me sad—and angry. To be sure, it draws needed attention to a key chapter in American Latino, labor and social movement history, as well as to the man whose leadership was central to it all. But it does so by reducing the man, the movement and its meaning to caricatures. The lessons the film teaches contradict the real lessons of Chavez’s work. And the “excuse” that “no movie can tell the whole story” doesn’t really wash. An earlier film in which director Diego Luna had an acting role, Milk, does the man, movement and meaning justice. There have been others—just not this one.
Cesar’s core leadership gifts were relational. He had an ability to engage widely diverse individuals, organizations and institutions with distinct talents, perspectives and skills in a common effort. The film, however, depicts him as a loner: driving alone (when in reality he had given up driving), traveling alone (which he never did) and deciding alone (when his strength was in building a team that could respond quickly, creatively and proactively to the daily crises of a long and intense effort).
Cesar was an organizer’s organizer, the craft in which he prided himself. This required a focus on people, their strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of power and work behind the scenes. In the film, he gives speeches, which he avoided, and engages in shouting matches on the picket line, which he never did. A believer in the rhetoric of action for many years, he rarely held press conferences, speaking to the public instead from the scene of the action.
Cesar could be a brilliant strategist, a skill observable in agile, imaginative interaction with determined opponents, turning apparent weakness into sources of strength. But the film depicts him largely as a creature of impulse, committed to be sure, but not the brainy strategist who took special joy, as he put it, in “killing two birds with one stone…and keeping the stone.” He was a learner, a deeply curious autodidact who thrived on constantly probing diverse sources of information: books, people and experiences. When I met him in 1965, he was reading Churchill’s The Gathering Storm because, as a student of Gandhi, he wanted to learn how his opponent thought. The commitment to nonviolence was based both on his appreciation of Gandhi’s methods and the way in which the civil rights movement, and reaction to it, had been unfolding every day. But oddly, although a commitment to nonviolence was a condition for undertaking the strike in the first place, shaping the way it unfolded, the film portrays nonviolence as a reaction to events in the strike.
Events depicted as spontaneous in the film, such at the 1966 “perigrinación” from Delano to Sacramento, were, to the contrary, a result of sustained, careful planning. The “kick-off” was timed to take advantage of national media in town to cover Senator Robert Kennedy’s participation in hearings held in Delano, orchestrated by the labor movement. This “march” strategically linked efforts to promote the UFW’s first boycott, to deter farm workers from returning to Delano in the spring, to pressure then Governor “Pat” Brown to intervene on the UFW”s behalf and to rekindle the faith, hopes and solidarity of the 100 to 200 people at the core of the movement and their supporters. Cesar did not hear of RFK’s death while driving somewhere in his car—we had been in LA doing the “get out the vote” that won him the primary, and some of us were with him in the ballroom when he was shot, on his way to thank the farm workers for their help. Similarly, the “fast” was not a reaction to a few unruly farm workers but a strategic tactic, backed with a team of organizers, of which I was one, undertaken at a key time in response to court actions alleging violent tactics, renewing commitment several years into the fight and drawing attention to the grape boycott in time for the new season. The creativity, organizational discipline and courage that produced the events depicted in the film is lost entirely in the incoherent jumble of what the film makers must have judged to be “dramatic moments,” which presented out of time, place or sequence are robbed of their real drama.