Though it’s billed as a biopic, those who come to Cesar Chavez hoping for an insightful portrait will be disappointed. Though Michael Peña carries some intensity beneath his largely-affable Chávez, his presence is nearly universally beatific. It’s understandable; the film unfairly carries the weight of telling a story a generation removed from the public eye, almost necessitating an educational rather than internal approach, and there’s too much in play to do both justice. As a result or by design, the movie is too impressionistic to examine anyone’s character for long.
Director Diego Luna’s more concerned with scope; Chávez is less a focus than a locus for the Delano grape strike and the growth of the UFW. While the supporting cast lacks much to do, America Ferrera spikes her scenes with the palpable toll of activist work, and though the timeline is sometimes so impressionistic as to be murky, muted details—a minimal score, man-on-the-ground camerawork with an occasional sun-drenched vista of an abandoned grape field—provide immediacy as events unfold. And those events are the movie’s real passion. The accumulation of slights, growers in friendly collusion with the police, news segments: all drive home how crucial a moment Chávez occupied, which the movie parallels as a clearly present danger. When growers open fire on a handful of protestors as police stand idly by, only deterred by the arrival of press, the scene draws intensity from its deliberate modern relevance as much as from within its own story.
“You have this annoying habit of turning everything into a lesson,” Fernando tells Chávez, and he’s not wrong. Cesar Chavez might be deserving of similar criticism. It’s too tempered to be stirring, but it’s a thoughtful glimpse of a story whose time has, unfortunately, come again.