Is it possible to help others fight for what is right without losing sight of what matter to you the most? Will you give up if things get to be too hard or will you rise above the challenges to see things through to the end? In the DVD release of “Cesar Chavez,” one man’s quest for equality for farmers led him down a long complex road that nearly cost him the people he loved most if he wasn’t too careful. Unfortunately, the movie’s overall story potential was squandered due to a lackluster script and an even bigger lack of a clear purpose, which was a shame because there was a better story to be told amongst all of the plot stereotypes.
“Cesar Chavez” followed Cesar (Michael Pena) who made it his life’s mission to make sure that all local farmers were able to be paid proper wages for a full day’s work without being cheated of what they earned. He knew first hand about what it was like to be an underpaid farm worker when he was forced to work the fields when he was younger. Chavez understood how frustrated the farmers were that they could be worked to the bone and get so little money to show for it. He grew to become a passionate civil rights activist who fought hard for farmer workers to get what was truly coming to them no matter how much their bosses protested. Chavez moved his family to Delano, California to be closer to the workers to get them to join the cause, but he knew that he would face many challenges along the way. Sadly, he didn’t expect that he would face different levels of opposition from his own family in the process. His devoted wife Helen (America Ferrera) was eager to do her part and managed to get arrested for leading a protest at a local farm. Cesar’s son Fernando (Eli Vargas) was starting to resent his father’s efforts with the farmer workers and was eager to move in with his grandparents after he was repeatedly bullied at school. Their relationship continued to remain strained as Chavez started face setbacks with the farmer workers as their original pledge of non-violence started to fall by the wayside after too many people have gotten hurt during protests. Cesar took a huge risk and pledged to starve himself until the group stopped being violent long enough to find a new focus in their cause. His pledge lasted nearly a month while he stayed with his brother Richard (Jacob Vargas). After years went by, Chavez was starting to see some progress, but he faced opposition from local farmer Bogdanovich (John Malkovich) and his son (Gabriel Mann) as they continued to stand firm against him. Will Chavez’s cause lead to a victory or will he die trying in the process?
In terms of questions, the movie’s biggest one was why closer attention wasn’t paid to crafting a proper script to tell one central story or focus on one particular character to give viewers something to grasp as the watched the movie. Sure, the story had a lot going on, but it still managed to pull viewers away from the plots that really matter, such as Chavez’s work. Ultimately, the story that shouldn’t have been focused on so much was Pena’s Chavez working to repair his relationship with his estranged son. The story could’ve been an emotional one if done right, but it served more as a distraction in this case and should’ve trimmed down or cut out of the script imediately. The movie’s biggest mistake wasn’t just focusing on telling Chavez’s story and not just one overall story with way too many viewpoints going on. The script’s lack of direction made it hard to relate to any of the characters aside from the occasional movie stereotype because none of the characters were properly fleshed out to begin with. The biggest casualty of this was Pena’s Chavez himself who was designed to be more of an enigma than an actual flesh and blood character, which was a shame because he had the potential to have a breakout leading role if he played his cards right. Many people might be aware of Chavez’s iconic nature as the civil rights activist who gave farmers their financial due and how his hard work paid off in the end. What they don’t know was how he ended up being an activist for farmers in the first place. All viewers got was a brief explanation of his past and little else to go on before the character was in the thick of his latest project. It also didn’t help that Ferrera’s Helen had little to do besides sitting on the sidelines and looking worried for her stressed husband. The story should’ve focused briefly on Cesar’s humble beginnings and how he met Helen to give viewers an idea of where the characters were coming from. Another option would have been to pull the focus completely away from any one characters and focused on Chavez’s farmer workers as a whole. Their plight and how Chavez’ efforts helped them to provide for their families for now on. Sadly, it’s a shame that viewers will never know; unless someone makes another movie or documentary about Chavez since truth is often more compelling than fiction.
As for breakout performances, Pena and Ferrera led the pack as their characters were the driving force between some of the film’s multiple different stories. For years, Pena was best known for being cast in strong supporting roles where he never seemed too close to reaching for the next step in his acting career. This movie was designed to be an effort to earn him the recognition he deserved was a big misstep because the script’s lack of polish made it hard for viewers to find, or even root for, him. It’s hard to not relate to the desperate father who watched his daughter almost get killed in “Crash.” What’s a shame was that Pena still hasn’t given the perfect opportunity to show off his acting chops in a proper leading role with a script to back him up in every way. Due to the script’s unclear focus, he wasn’t given much of a proper chance to show how he could bring Chavez from the page to the screen properly. He was able to provide some moments of levity, anger and sadness to each particular scene, but he was never able to show what made Chavez really tick. Let’s hope that Pena’s next leading man opportunity won’t be squandered by a disappointing script. Ferrera, on the other hand, had the more challenging task of portraying the usually thankless housewife role who often hid in the background as her husband got all of the glory. She had a strong rapport with Pena that was never truly explored due to the multiple storylines going on around them. Ferrera’s strongest scenes often showcased her character expressing her anger and her sadness without having to say anything because it was often written all over her face. Her most memorable scene came when Helen decided to get involved in a protest that got her arrested. Ferrera gave Helen a strong sense of passsion and anger as her husband expressed his lack of enthusiasm over the idea of Helen spending a night in jail. There was a follow-up scene between Pena and Ferrera that was his best scene because he wordlessly expressed Cesar’s frustration that Helen’s night in jail proved to be much more enjoyable for her than it did him. It’s a shame that both Ferrera and Pena didn’t get much of a chance to develop an on-screen relationship. Hopefully, they will be able to one day if they decided to do another film together. Only time will tell if that’s the case.
Verdict: Pena delivered some credibility to the role of Chavez, but the story lacked a true direction to give him the proper movie to prove that he had leading man potential.
DVD Score: 2 out of 5 stars
Movie Rating: PG-13
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)