The 1960s were a time of tremendous cultural upheaval in the United States, with the culmination of the African-American civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. (and many others with him) often being cited as one of the decade's most significant historical achievements. On the other side of the country, however, in the grape fields of Central California, another civil rights crusade was taking place—one that was led by Cesar Chavez, and one that may not be as well known.
Cesar, we learn early in this film, was born in Arizona to parents who had made the journey there from Mexico. They enjoyed modest success on the ranch they owned … until the Great Depression wiped them out, forcing the family to migrate northwest to California's grape country. Cesar grew up there in deep poverty, escaping to the Navy at age 17 in the hope that it might break the cycle of impoverishment in which his family found itself trapped. The specter of his father, broken by the shame of losing his farm, haunted and propelled young Cesar in his emerging crusade for justice for his downtrodden people.
The biopic Cesar Chavez focuses on a critical five-year period from 1965 to 1970 in which Cesar played a pivotal role in organizing Mexican and Filipino laborers to strike against the grape growers in protest of low pay and miserable working conditions.
When we first meet him, Chavez and his wife, Helen (along with their eight children) have decided that the only way to help workers attain a better life is to fight the good fight right there in the trenches with them. And so they move from Los Angeles to Delano, Calif., where they hope to inspire the laborers to consider striking and joining the newly formed United Farm Workers union. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Cesar is the union's co-founder Dolores Huerta. And Helen is never far from the fray either.
Cesar's twin strengths as a leader are his ability to empathize with those he hopes to aid paired with an intuitive sense of how to outwit the significant opposition they face. At first, he shows up at the grape fields near Delano and tries to talk workers into joining his union. That doesn't go over well with anyone—especially the grape farm owners and the local sheriff, a meanspirited man named Smith whose idea of maintaining justice has little to do with the well-being of the immigrant workers he despises. And so Cesar and his wife join the workers, seeking to subvert the status quo from the inside out.
Meeting with an aging worker in the crude, barracks-like shack the man and his comrades "live" in, Cesar asks, "Do you own anything?" The man ponders, then says simply, "No." "Can you read or write?" "Read? No. Of course not." Cesar continues with his query: "Who in your family works?" The man looks at his family, then says, "Me and my wife. And my kids—the older ones, anyway," looking at a boy who can't be more than six or seven but is already one of the "older ones" his dad is referring to.
It's a scene that clearly speaks to why Cesar becomes so passionate about his quest for bringing justice and dignity to abused and mistreated people. Over and over, we hear him talk about his desire to see these hardworking people be paid a fair wage and be protected from horrendous working conditions in which they're treated as little more than serfs or slaves. At one point he says, "I'm angry that we live in a world where a man who picks food can't feed his family."
Cesar mates his determination with a bit of tactical genius. He realizes that if his cause remains a local one, the landowners and the police (who are shown working hand in hand to maintain the status quo) will squelch any reform. So he makes sure reporters from San Francisco show up to document abuses. He takes a boycott of grapes to the national level. He enlists the help of no less a supporter than Robert F. Kennedy, who comes to California to speak on his behalf. And when Sheriff Smith bullies him, Cesar knows his rights and stands up to the officer's intimidation.
Helen is equally dogged. When a local judge says that protestors can no longer shout the word strike to workers in the fields, she volunteers to be the first to go out and shout it some more, guaranteeing her arrest … and increasing the cause's solidarity and publicity.
We see Cesar grapple deeply with whether he's doing the right thing. And he ceaselessly campaigns for nonviolent means through all of this. Even though the other side has unleashed beatings, shot a man and run another down, Cesar is determined not to respond similarly.
If Cesar sacrifices anyone besides himself on the altar of his cause, it's his oldest son, Fernando, a teen who becomes increasingly disillusioned by his father's incessant work. Cesar knows his son is struggling (he's getting beaten up and bullied and school), but never disengages from his work long enough to help him. That's not positive, of course. And Cesar comes to realize that too. After a key victory at the end of the film, he writes a heartfelt letter of apology to the boy (who's now left home to live with his grandparents), acknowledging that he failed Fernando in significant ways.
Sheriff Smith accuses Cesar and other leaders in his labor movement of being Communists. Cesar replies that he's a Catholic, and that he doesn't think Catholics can be Communists. And as the film progresses, more signs of the migrant workers' faith become evident. We see a large cross in the bedroom where Cesar spends most of a 25-day fast/hunger strike. Two scenes picture Catholic priests presiding over the Lord's Supper, and we hear some of the words of institution for that sacrament. Cesar's first food following his fast is the bread wafer he receives during Communion.
When Cesar is named Time magazine's Man of the Year, an enemy spits, "I thought they were gonna ask him to be Pope." We see newsreel footage of Robert F. Kennedy's funeral at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. We hear that the Pope, an influential Methodist minister and what the film calls "diverse religious groups" are all supportive of Cesar's crusade. He also says that churches are a good place to recruit support for the boycott.
Cesar and his wife kiss. She's shown in bed. We see the tops of her shoulders as she looks at herself in a mirror while wearing just a bra.
Despite Cesar's earnest attempts to keep the protests he's organizing nonviolent, both the grape growers and the local police seem determined to goad the workers into a physical response. Police and farm supervisors repeatedly act in menacing ways toward the workers, often threatening violence … and they sometimes follow through. Law enforcement officers use batons to beat striking workers. A shotgun blast tears a hole in a picket sign. A drive-by shooting wounds a worker. The farm's owners drive two pesticide tankers near the crowd and begin spraying them to force them to disperse. Someone intentionally drives a car into a group of workers, throwing one into the air and then violently to the ground. The workers pull the driver from the car and begin kicking and pummeling him, determined to exact their revenge. (Cesar convinces them to stop.) Cesar gets whacked in the stomach with the butt of a rifle.
Fernando has a black eye from being bullied at school. Defending her boy from bullies who are mocking him, Helen runs into the street with a baseball bat and takes several swings at a fleeing car. In a dream, Cesar imagines foes burning down his house. A radio news story describes the head wound that killed Robert F. Kennedy.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word comes from one of the oppressors. There are also five or six s-words. God's name is abused a handful of times; twice it's paired with "d‑‑n." "H‑‑‑" pops out a half-dozen times, "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch three or so times each, "b‑‑tard" once.
Cesar's son, Fernando, reports that other kids at school are calling him a "beaner," an obviously derogatory slur. Cesar tries to encourage him, perhaps a bit perversely, by spinning off a litany of all the slurs he's heard over the years, including "greaser," "wetback," "spic" and even "brown n-gger." Cesar and his friends are reviled about a half-dozen times with the epithets "wetbacks" and "spics."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Adults drink in many scenes, both wine and beer. Cesar and a friend gulp from flasks after a hard day of work in the field. People frequently smoke cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Throughout the film, Sheriff Smith and his deputies are depicted as men who are willing to break the law to intimidate Mexican workers.
In the middle of an important meeting, a man inexplicably gets up to use the nearby restroom and doesn't shut the door. We (and everyone in the room) hear him as he urinates.
Cesar Chavez offers a compelling and inspiring portrait of one man's courageous crusade to change an unjust status quo for the better. Though doubts plague him at times, Cesar is determined to rally the migrant workers of Central California into a cohesive, organized force—one with enough clout to demand basic concessions with regard to wages and way of life.
With the exception of a few profanities (including an f-word) and a couple of skirmishes involving brief-but-intense violence, director Diego Luna has framed his story of Cesar Chavez in a way that should be reasonably accessible for even some teen audiences. And he's created a movie that could generate some spirited conversation about the topic of injustice, including where similar issues may be in play in our world today—and what our responsibility might be to engage them.
Some mainstream reviewers have been critical of the way the film puts its central character in a glowing light while reducing his antagonists to two-dimensional greedy villains. Writing for rogerebert.com, Godfrey Cheshire says, "Cesar Chavez, directed by Mexican actor Diego Luna, commits the classic sin of biopics about storied leaders: it's reverential rather than revealing, predictably admiring where it needs to be nuanced and challenging. Biographies of Chavez paint a man who was complex and controversial even within his own circle, a natural leader who also made strategic mistakes that sometimes harmed his own cause. This is rich material for a movie. Yet Cesar Chavez regrettably gives us the historical man with all the rough edges sanded off, leaving a depiction that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to a plaster saint."
I completely understand that criticism. But setting aside such aesthetic considerations (as well as assorted political ones), Cesar Chavez still succeeds at challenging viewers to look at the world from the perspective of people Jesus called "the least of these"—a perspective it's all too easy to lose track of in a culture that all too often forgets that such people even exist.