Opens Fri., March 28 at Meridian and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 98 minutes.
“If the poor aren’t involved, change will never come.” I wish those words were spoken at the beginning of this routine, earnest biopic, rather than at the end. Director Diego Luna has made the wise decision to show us just a few years of the titular speaker’s life: mostly 1962–1970, when Chavez organized California agricultural workers into an upstart union. But Chavez (1927–1993) belongs too much to the past, and the struggle depicted here crests at his peak influence and renown. (Time’s 1969 man of the year, he counted Robert F. Kennedy among his supporters.)
Still, the ’60s are long ago for many filmgoers. Chavez (played by Michael Peña) now has to be reintroduced, and that takes time. There are many montages of his organizing in the dusty fields, directing picket lines and marching in solidarity beneath the hot sun, even undertaking a hunger strike to shame the powerful landowners of the San Joaquin Valley. (The latter are represented by weary grape oligarch John Malkovich, whose dimwit minions don’t realize the times are a-changin’.)
Supported by his wife (America Ferrera) and colleagues (Rosario Dawson, Wes Bentley, etc.), Chavez denounces violence and strives to keep his fractious coalition together. The movie revisits an activist era of homemade placards, shoe-leather protests, and rotary-dial phone banks. But Twitter and Facebook have replaced all that now, and the modest Chavez is better suited to documentary treatment than big-screen figures like Malcolm X, Che Guevara, and Abbie Hoffman.
What this movie fails to engage are the ethical concerns of today’s grocery-store shopper. Never mind organic or gluten-free, why are these Chilean grapes so cheap? That out-of-season asparagus? The Australian syrah? Who picked this produce from the ground? Cesar Chavez dully relates an admirable, even heroic life, but it’s just one among of millions still toiling in the dirt.