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.
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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.