Imagine the hushed auditorium, ticket buyers lean forward as one, dreading the unseen menace of the growers. Antonio Banderas shouts fluently to the grape pickers, “¡en las uvas si se puede!” and switches to English, “join us, they don’t pay you enough!”
Lots of sky shots, close ups of a burning sun, sweaty faces, a wrinkled grandmother, a teenage schoolgirl, bunches of green grapes. Mandy Pantinkin as the evil major domo advances on Banderas Chavez, seen in profile flirting with the smudged-face beauty. Chavez tenderly touches her cheek, cut to Dolores Huerta bristling, America Ferrera wiping her brow. The abuela gives her chifle and the girl steps back, lips mouthing “tonight.” CU of a hopeful Banderas Cesar Chávez. John Malkovich, face all restrained vehemence, nods imperceptibly into the camera. Pantinkin leaps with murderous eyes.
CU of the schoolgirl calling warning, “on your six, jefe!” Chavez wheels on Pantinkin, catches a fist on the shoulder. Cesar Chávez grins, says “You get one free, vato, and that was it.” Banderas leg-sweeps Pantinkin who thuds onto his back. Banderas Chavez pivots on the back leg to straddle the stunned major domo. The hero raises a boot above Pantinkin’s terrified face. CU of Banderas Chavez’ agonized face, the temptation to violence heightened by tense music. Banderas does a heel stomp but arrests a millimeter from Pantinkin’s face. The villain imagines the boot pulping his face, in slo-mo, before he focuses on the Cat’s Paw heel.
Malkovich turns and runs to the canal where he is carried away screaming by the powerful current. In an homage to 50’s horror films, a giant centipede gnaws at Malkovich’s legs and pulls him under. The scene ends with workers dumping their bushels of grapes on the unconscious Pantinkin. They walk out of the vineyard, arms linked singing, “yo ‘stoy con Chavez, y si señor, yo ‘stoy con Chavez, y la union….” In a slow dissolve to “tonight” we catch Banderas and the ingénue in steaming embrace, the movie’s scene of forbidden love and obligatory female nudity….
Cesar Chávez, the movie, didn’t have Banderas, Pantinkin, kung-fu scenes, torrid one-night stands, gore, and monsters. That had been my fear when I read some time back that some knuckleheaded Hollywood producer wanted to do the Cesar Chávez movie but with Antonio Banderas as Cesar Chávez. Who knows where a big box office actor would have taken a script. Ni modo because Michael Peña capably captures Chavez’ intensity and earnestness with quiet dignity. Which is expected. Sadly, I couldn’t understand the final conversation between Malkovich and Peña when Cesar pridefully says something about kicking the grower’s ass.
|©michael v. sedano|
Fabulous casting makes this the best movie I’ve seen this year. Malkovich does his best to steal the movie from Michael Peña as Mr. Chávez, America Ferrera and Rosario Dawson as Mrs. Chávez and Ms. Huerta.
Rounding out the cast are a bunch of pretty decent actors whose characters are so eclipsed by Cesar’s leadership that I miss their names. There’s a tall, thin guy with a good smile. There’s a doubting Thomas vato who always fails to see the good instead badmouths Chavez’ speeches, but finally comes over to the union. The loyal brother nurses his fasting leader, otherwise comes into focus quietly on hand to offer sensible consejos.
The script follows along chronologically. Chavez moves to California discovers injustice. He works in an office, decides to take CSO philosophies into the fields. The movement struggles to be born. Pinoy workers organize. El Malcriado scares the heck out of prescient white growers. Pinoys with Larry Itliong strike, Chavez wins the Mexicans to solidarity with them. Bobby Kennedy comes to town to embarrass the local establishment, giving the farmworker movement a moral victory that impels the cause. Chavez goes on a hunger strike.
The big facts of el movimiento form the outline of modern history textbooks. And that outline is the problem with the script by Keir Pearson. The story strings together incredibly important and moving episodes in the historical Cesar Chávez career centering around the table grape and Gallo Wine boycotts. But, like bullet points unelaborated, the episodes come and go, one momentous event to the next.
Absent are the thought process, the philosophies, behind the decisions. Momentous events simply happen because information arrives in shorthand. Cesar’s decision to Fast evolves in four scenes. An asshole driver runs down a picketer. Aroused farmworkers drag the driver out and pummel him with fists and feet. Chavez loses his cool and leaves. Devastated, he confesses he’s failed as a leader for nonviolence, and by the way, that he’s not eaten now for two days.
This Fast goes on for 25 days, draws national sympathy for the UFW but more importantly solidifies campesino support. The gruff doubting Tomás shows up to sign the nonviolence pledge in an underexploited scene that cries out for melodramatic pathos. Instead, the actor gives us a head nod and a bit of eye contact.
The connective tissue doesn’t make it into the film. It’s an equivalent of telling instead of showing. With the big facts of the grape campaign and Chavez’ career already so well known, I wanted writer Pearson to challenge his writer’s chops, show what only film audiences can see and learn about the character of the men and women embroiled in tumultuous times. Not that something happened, why, how did these people move?
The scenes between Chavez and his increasingly alienated first born, a son, yield some of that ethos-building here’s how insight; an apple here, an apple there, a below-par eighteen holes. This script sets up the distance between them but without close examination. The viewer gets outlines of a relationship nicely strung together like pearls on a string, an element of the whole yet each knotted separately from the others.
What was between Cesar and Dolores? goes a certain chisme thread entre la gente. Pearson’s script doesn’t get into that, but Director Luna does. Employing shot triangulation Luna implants a mild inference of an unscripted relationship. Cesar does something, the crowd reacts; quick medium shot of attractive Dolores with a smolder in her eye; cut to motherly America; back to Cesar and the event. Luna’s not subtle about it.
The campaign against Gallo is widely known. The producers make sure to stray from historical accuracy on that, creating a phony winemaker with an Italian name. It’s the only element in the story that weakens its credibility. There’s a second big gripe, the closing music. It’s a beauteous song, yearning and thoughtful, sadly not the uplifting energy born from “No nos moveran” used earlier in the film.
Grower villains are numerous. Grape, lettuce, strawberries, roses, carrots, who can remember all the names? Thus, the film creates a mash-up character that Malkovich devours, a Croatian immigrant whose defense of “foreigners” illustrates the subtext of grower resistance, less economic more misanthropy against Mexicans. The silent brown maidservant takes in all the crud, not that the assembled growers have compunctions about insulting the invisible Mexicana.
Audiences don’t know anything of this when they buy the ticket and won't miss it. Those who buy a ticket. By sales standards, Cesar Chávez is flopping. Even in limited distribution, the film isn’t filling bank accounts nor minds. Nonetheless it’s a satisfying film to go see. Cesar Chavez has all the right stuff, action, daunting fears, crises, victory, nobility.
Cesar Chávez’ story comes with urgency for its civil rights content. The film doesn’t overplay racism while laying it in full view, nor does it milk victimhood even a little. Like Bobby Kennedy tells the sheriff and district attorney, during lunch you pendejos read the Constitution. That’s what Cesar Chávez is about, puro United States values. Kids should see Cesar Chávez, all of them.
Cesar Chávez is a major success at summarizing the story of the twentieth century’s most dynamic Mexican Chicano personality, the kind of biography that people leave the auditorium elated, wiping joyous tears. It’ll take a few more months before word of mouth spreads and just as you wouldn’t be caught eating grapes during the boycott, you won’t want to admit you haven’t seen Cesar Chávez.
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