Most great men have one. Malcolm X, Gandhi, Mandela all have one. And now, Cesar Chavez has his.
The biographical film titled “Cesar Chavez,” which came out this past weekend, lends itself to the creation of legends. In the case of Chavez, the legend is complicated by the fact that his story did not exactly lead to the liberation of the people he represented. Great strides were made during the heyday of the farmworkers movement – namely the first contracts for farmworkers and a California law that recognized their right to unionize. But field workers today suffer indignities familiar to those who worked in rural California prior to the 1960s.
These facts are not the concern of Diego Luna, the new film’s director. “We have to send a message to the (film) industry that our stories have to be represented. And with the depth and the complexity they deserve,” Luna said recently.
Fair enough. As a Mexican American and a historian, I too long for dignified cinematic portrayals of Latinos that convey the struggles for equality our people have initiated. Our yearnings, however, should not come at the expense of historical accuracy.
I recently published a book on the United Farm Workers and Chavez, and I understand the need to play a little loose with the timeline for dramatic effect. But Luna’s omissions and alterations are really historical subversions. His interpretation, I suspect, is a product of his unsophisticated handling of U.S. identity politics. He rejects the multiethnic community that made up the farmworkers movement in favor of a simplistic notion that Mexicans did all the work. Creating a hero comes at the expense of depicting an entire social movement.
The Filipino American National Historical Society has rightly come out against the film’s misrepresentation of labor leader Larry Itliong and have questioned Luna’s failure to acknowledge the largely Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which initiated the 1965 grape strike, a turning point in the film.
The film doesn’t mention white volunteers and organizers beyond Fred Ross, Cesar’s mentor, and Jerry Cohen, the talented leader of the UFW legal team. Several white ministers and students played a critical role in the movement, including Rev. Jim Drake, who came up with the boycott strategy. As the film lumbers toward the epic signing of the first contracts in 1970, Luna’s most egregious distortion of history comes when he shows Chavez in London. We see the labor leader lobbying dockworkers on the Thames River wharf and appealing to consumers not to buy the fruit. Though this work actually happened, it was a young Jewish American volunteer, Elaine Elinson, who almost single-handedly kept the grapes out of Europe.
The film even fails to represent accurately the supporting cast of Mexican American activists in Cesar’s orbit. Gilbert Padilla (Yancey Arias) and Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) come off as nothing more than a yes-man and yes-woman to Chavez when in fact they were distinguished organizers in their own right. Only Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, is presented as a character with her own mind and story, a tribute to America Ferrera’s standout performance.
But the film probably does the greatest disservice to Cesar Chavez himself. The director opts out of the 1970s altogether, a period in which Chavez struggled with personal and professional demons and became invested in creating a community rather than solidifying earlier gains. Such a storyline would have done little to burnish his credentials as a civil and labor rights leader, but it would have made for a more compelling film. More importantly, it would have made for a much more accurate portrait of the real man’s depth and complexity.
These omissions reflect the limitations of the genre and the hero-making project of this film. With rare exception, biopics elide complexity and avoid overt criticism of their subjects. The most extraordinary and entertaining renditions of historical figures have often via fictionalized characters, like Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane based on William Randolph Hearst (“Citizen Kane”) and P. T. Anderson’s Daniel Plainview based on Edward Doheny (“There Will Be Blood”) .
In fairness to Luna, Chavez was delivered to him with decades of historical baggage, thanks to hagiography and political stamps of approval from Robert Kennedy, Jerry Brown, and Barack Obama. Though new histories are now being written, it will take time for the public’s perception of the hero to catch up with the all-too-human Chavez. Sadly, Luna’s film does almost nothing to assist this move toward a new understanding of Cesar Chavez’s life and the successes and failures of the movement he led.