Usually when you hear about movies involving Diego Luna, you expect to see him front-and-center, as an engaging leading man. But for the upcoming Cesar Chavez film opening this Friday, March 28th, he has stepped behind the camera directing an intense and moving biopic about one of our country’s greatest heroes.
It’s actually rather shocking to think this is the first feature film about Chavez’s life. A civil rights pioneer throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, he made tremendous strides for farm workers, Latinos and the American peace movement. And thankfully, Luna’s film touches all of those points in explicit detail. Covering a 15-year span in Chavez’s life, the 140-minute film keeps things very tight. Rather than go into his upbringing, or even his twilight years, it zeroes in on the famous nonviolent campaigns that defined him.
In a rare leading role, Michael Pena (fresh off American Hustle) shines as the title character. He portrays Chavez as a much more subdued leader, with nuances of self-doubt. For all intents and purposes, it works. It’s much easier to appreciate Chavez as a full-rounded human being than as a larger-than-life martyr. Pena also casts a light on Chavez’s intelligence, which really became the key to his success. This was a man who fought with his mind and used thoughtful nonviolent tactics to bring attention to his causes. Chavez also delivered some amazing speeches (fully documented here) and had a knack for uniting cultures with his words.
Cesar Chavez’s supporting cast deserves high marks as well. Rosario Dawson perfectly captures the fiery spirit of Chavez cohort Dolores Huerta and America Ferrera adds a nice depth as Cesar’s wife Helen. Newcomer Eli Vargas has several memorable scenes too, playing the distant son of the Chavez family.
Perhaps the only critique of the film is with its so-called “villain.” Veteran actor John Malkovich is certainly engaging onscreen, but his over-the-top grape grower character can feel a little too cartoonish at times. As you can imagine, Chavez made many powerful enemies once he convinced the United Farm Workers to go on strike. Malkovich appears to be an amalgam of every rotten businessman rolled into one.
Several historical figures make their way into the movie too, including Robert Kennedy and, via stock clips, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. There is an amazing attention to detail when capturing the look and feel of old school California. The clothes, the sets, the cars…Luna’s production team did a fantastic job emulating the different time periods.
Yet the lion’s share of Cesar Chavez’s success lies with Diego himself. As a director, he’s got a great visual eye and was able to bring out some amazing performances from the cast. He also kept things very lean, pacing the movie well and inter-splicing real historical footage between scenes.
Cesar Chavez isn’t just a good movie, it’s an important movie. And we definitely recommend seeking it out in theatres when it arrives on March 28th.