** (out of four)
Anyone who sees “Cesar Chavez” will exit the theater knowing that the civil rights activist (Chicago native Michael Pena) endured a 25-day hunger strike in the name of nonviolence. That he spent time away from his eight (!) children to organize Mexican and Filipino farm workers in 1960s California. And that he led a large group of people who needed an advocate, not just for a salary higher than $2 a day, but for fundamental equality.
What moviegoers won’t get, however, is an actual depiction of the reasons Chavez took on the cause. The film, the first English-language directorial effort for Diego Luna (still best known as the guy who’s not Gael Garcia Bernal in “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), opens with the hero discussing his early exposure to the injustices of underpaid, under-represented farm workers. We don’t see this. We don’t feel his personal connection to the fight, and, even more importantly, we don’t see the effects of the workers being mistreated. “Cesar Chavez” presents them only as faces in the crowd.
Some recognizable faces in thinly written parts include America Ferrera as Chavez’s wife, Rosario Dawson as Chavez’s ally and John Malkovich, another Chicago-area native, as a businessman who suffers from one of the Chavez-led boycotts. It’s too bad Luna didn’t listen to the complaints of Chavez’s oldest son, Fernando, who tells his father, “You have this annoying habit of turning everything into a lesson.” This is a message film about an important subject—but it forgets to be both informative and watchable. Throughout, characters are only good (Robert Kennedy) or evil (Richard Nixon), and Chavez is presented as a determined saint despite paying minimal attention to Fernando and even less to the rest of his children. “Cesar Chavez” provides no sense of the impact this abandonment has on the kids; apparently their long-term happiness is none of our concern.
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