[Screen It]


(2014) (Michael Pena, America Ferrera) (PG-13)

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Drama: A Mexican-American social activist tries to organize migrant farm workers into a union in 1960s era California.
It's the 1960s and Cesar Chavez (MICHAEL PENA) is a Mexican-American who grew up working as a migrant farm worker in California, but after a stint in the Navy has become a social activist working for the Latino civil rights group, Community Service Organization (CSO). Married to Helen (AMERICA FERRERA) with whom he has eight kids, including oldest son Fernando (ELI VARGAS), Cesar has been working on a grass roots movement of trying to organize the migrant workers in order to provide them with better working conditions.

Realizing he can't do that very well from Los Angeles, he packs up the family and moves to Delano, California to be closer to those farmhands, and is eventually joined by fellow CSO worker Dolores Huerta (ROSARIO DAWSON) and others who join the cause. As they attempt to organize those workers, however, they must contend with the local law in the form of Sheriff Smith (MICHAEL CUDLITZ) who's getting pressure from the likes of grape grower John Bogdanovich (GABRIEL MANN) -- who's had the business handed down to him by his former immigrant father (JOHN MALKOVICH) -- to do something about it.

Preaching non-violent protest and strikes as the way to get their message out there and thus cause reform, Cesar also goes on week-long fasts. He also embarks on a more than 300-mile march with Helen, Dolores and others as they head to Sacramento in hopes of getting the laws changed and to force the farm owners' hands in such negotiations.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In the old days and particularly in rural areas, one knew exactly where the products they consumed or purchased came from. In terms of food, if you didn't grow or raise it yourself, you knew who did. That held true for non-edible items, be that clothing, furniture, tools or what have you. City life, however, didn't haven't the space for food or product production and thus was outsourced to factories and farming operations where anonymous workers toiled away, often under horrendous working conditions.

While much of that had ceased in the U.S. due to the forming of labor unions (as well at shipping production overseas where cheap labor in sweatshops replaced the American worker -- something that still continues to this day), the farming conditions were still bad for the local poor as well as migrant workers until as recently as the 1960s.

That's when former migrant farm worker turned social activist Cesar Chavez decided that enough was enough and decided to convince those still toiling in the fields to organize and demand better treatment from their employers. That eventually lead to the formation of the National Farm Workers Association (that later became the United Farm Workers) and better working conditions for its members.

It also resulted in this week's biopic release about the man and his mission, "Cesar Chavez." Well-intentioned and clearly filled with dramatic potential considering the man's dedication (that included ultra-long fasting protests), what would clearly be stiff and potentially dangerous opposition from management and related interests, and his non-violent, Gandhi-esque approach at handling all of that, the film ends up eliciting not much more than a "meh" response.

Even fellow Mexican-Americans and anyone involved in working on farms who view Chavez as a revered cultural icon and important historical figure will likely be hard pressed to be moved by the way the story is presented here. As is the case with many a biopic, the necessary skipping along through time bedevils the plot thrust and steals a lot of any semblance of building dramatic momentum, a point exacerbated by actor-turned-director Diego Luna shot-gunning most of the scenes through this 100-some minute film.

While a few sequences get the necessary time to make an impact on the viewer, the vast majority come and go so quickly that they feel like little more than placeholders and entries on a checklist of things that needed to be seen in the pic. Michael Pena does his best to portray the man, his convictions and dedication to the cause, but considering Luna's directorial approach and screenwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton not giving the actor enough substantial dramatic meat upon which to chew, the effort ultimately doesn't go anywhere.

Beyond personifying the opposition in the form of a racist sheriff (Michael Cudlitz) and a grape grower (John Malkovich) and his adult son (Gabriel Mann) who's taking over the business, the rest of the drama is supposed to steam from the familial riff between the title character and his oldest son (Eli Vargas).

But just like Malkovich's character isn't fleshed out enough to make him interesting (beyond the "I was an immigrant too, but worked hard to build my business and lifestyle from scratch" superficiality), neither is the father-son conflict. And both America Ferrera and especially Rosario Dawson are given little to do as the main female figures in the story, an odd point considering Dawson's Dolores Huerta was a co-founder of the NFWA with Chavez.

Sporting a low-budget feel but deviled far more by its episodic and sparse structure, "Cesar Chavez" is one of those films that's supposed to be profound, moving and inspirational, but ends up as an instantly forgettable biopic that few will likely see or care about. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 24, 2014 / Posted March 28, 2014

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