Cesar Chavez may have prevailed, but the little people of this country are still paying the price flowing from Robert Kennedy’s death in 1968. See this film and rediscover why.
Cesar Chavez, in English with occasional subtitles when required, is a film that deserves to be seen. Focusing on Mr. Chavez’s leadership on behalf of Hispanic California farm workers in the 1960’s, it recreates a moment in our history that Americans should not forget.
Michael Peña stars as Chavez, and he finally receives his moment to shine on screen. He has always played small roles in overlooked films, so see if you can remember him from Lions for Lambs (2007); Observe and Report (2009); The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) and End of Watch (2012). More importantly, you might recall him playing the FBI’s fake Arabian Sheik in last year’s Oscar nominated American Hustle.
Here, he plays an honorable man who risks the fate of his entire family by joining workers in the California fields in order to establish his union. Frequently gone from home, his wife, beautifully played by America Ferrara, was left to do her best at raising their children. Director Diego Luna has the courage to display the personal cost of trying to help the downtrodden.
What makes the film so engaging is the attempt of Chavez to lead a group of powerless people against the wealthy owners of the large California farms. Frequently attacked by the police who were doing the bidding of owners whose only concern was the financial bottom line, Chavez daily risked incarceration if not death.
John Malkovich had the courage to play one of those landowners, and he was bad to the bone. There was nothing that he and his colleagues wouldn’t try to defeat Chavez, be it the importation of illegal immigrants to work in the fields or brutal confrontation by employing hired thugs.
Mr. Chavez also found himself opposed by a political system eventually led by Governor Ronald Reagan. You see the governor in old footage denouncing the farmers movement, and there is little wonder why the wealthy business owners backing the National Republican Party today still idolize Reagan.
However, as desperate as his journey became, Mr. Chavez emulated Martin Luther King by sticking to a firm non-violence policy. His people were firmly instructed to never respond if attacked, and that clearly proved difficult given the aggression of those in power.
But I must confess that what made the movie for me was the performance of Jack Holmes as Senator Robert Kennedy. Doing the best impression of RFK that I have ever seen on film, he publicly endorsed Mr. Chavez’s movement by visiting California and challenging the law enforcement authorities who had violated the law without apology. Senator Kennedy was a man of action, and it reminded me of the short moment I passionately supported him when he ran for President in 1968.
In the film, you see Mr. Chavez almost run off the road when the radio brings him the news of the Senator’s shooting. I had to look down in the theater, as I still remember hearing that news as I woke on June 9, 1968. I felt then that there was no one left to fight a political battle that needed to be led, and the eventual election of Richard Nixon as President and four more years of the Vietnam War proved that fact.
While Mr. Chavez eventually prevailed and forced the California growers to accept his union of small farm workers, I still feel that the ramifications of Senator Kennedy’s death continues to this day. Here in Indiana, we see unions decapitated by Right to Work laws. Nationally, we see elected officials leading the charge to emasculate Medicaid, food stamps and unemployment insurance. Masking the fact that they simply don’t feel that government has a role to help see that the poor and middle class have the same opportunities as the wealthy, they shamelessly advocate reducing the taxes on the rich while increasing defense spending.
For those of you who don’t share my observations, think of the Supreme Court’s ruling that once again equates money to free speech. In other words, a landowner has the same right to spend $1 million in an election as a farm worker does $1. In effect, wealthy conservative Republicans like the Koch Brothers and those serving on the United States Supreme Court have effectively continued their efforts to return us to the Gilded Age of the late 1900’s. The United States may still be the “home of the brave”, but we have once again mutated into “Land of the wealthy, run by the wealthy to serve the wealthy.”;
It is interesting to note that this film is playing in only one theater in Indianapolis at this time, namely the Georgetown Cinema on Layfayette Road. It plays on two screens, one of which is in Spanish with no subtitles. Released by the same production company that brought us last year’s phenomenal Instructions Not Included, it is worth your time and effort to see it.
Today, it is important to remember that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.