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Cesar Chavez Review: Civil Rights Movie Not Done Right
I sat quietly in my giant leather chair for several minutes, staring into my mobile phone. The blue light from its screen was the only source of illumination in the room and it cast a ghostly hue upon my face. Finally, a sound; a simple sigh coming from deep within my chest.
“None of these seem interesting…” My chair spun quickly as I got up to pace around the room, hand firmly placed on chin to show that I was indeed in deep thought. “How can I write my first professional review when none of these movies even look remotely entertaining?” My cat looked at me with eyes that said “shut up.” I continued my pacing around the whole apartment. I now have an old fashioned smoker’s pipe in my mouth and a house robe on to complete the ensemble of a movie critic. I turn back to my phone and scroll through the list one more time, eyes darting from line to line.
My scrolling abruptly stops.
“Of course! Cesar Chavez! That movie I didn’t even hear about until just now, about the famous Mexican activist! This is my ticket to fame and fortune!” I quickly grabbed my coat from the floor and ran out my door armed with only my trusty pen and notepad and my high school understanding of the French language (French and Spanish are basically the same thing, right?) I jumped into my car Dukes of Hazard style and set off for my local mall.
The movie begins with Cesar Chavez (played by Michael Pena) explaining when he first started seeing the injustices being done to the Hispanic farm workers of wealthy land owners. The workers would labor in grueling conditions and not bring home enough to feed or shelter their family with only $2 a day. Cesar, having lived the experience himself, decides to spread awareness to the plight of these people and to create ways to help them live in the meantime. Cesar and his family start picketing around farms to get farm workers to join their cause, but the land owners and the police are against them and try to stop their endeavors. Their organization grows quickly as more and more people join the fight and they begin to organize large protests to get the workers to strike.
Violence and anger begins to grow within the union which makes the organization’s stance on non-violent protests quickly break down. Cesar goes on a month long fast to prove how serious he is about peaceful non-violent striking. Later, when the land owners drastically lose profits from the boycotts stemming from the union’s awareness, they export their grape goods to Europe, but Cesar immediately follows. He convinces the UK and much of Europe, who have fair wage laws for all people, to boycott the companies there too. Finally, after proving that the convictions of the Hispanic farm workers was too strong to break, Cesar and the land owners sign an agreement to give the farm workers fair pay opportunities and the movie ends happily ever after.
My thoughts? I went into this movie as a person with no expectations. I hadn’t even heard about the movie’s existence until a few days before it opened. Now here’s what I thought about it: this movie, though ambitious, was a mess. I really wanted to like Cesar Chavez since I actually enjoy historic movie adaptations of real life atrocities to get an idea of how it felt to live through these dark moments in history and to educate myself on important events. Unfortunately, it makes some big mistakes as a movie, and that’s how I’m going to judge it.
First off, the pacing in this movie for the first hour is Sonic the Hedgehog levels of fast. We’re just thrown into the story with no explanation of who the characters are. We’re given a brief bio on Cesar at the beginning, but his family and friends are pretty much completely ignored to the point that I didn’t even know the names of most of them by the movie’s end. This pacing issue also affects the emotion of the movie. We, as an audience, are supposed to feel bad or sad for the unfairness being put upon the workers who want nothing more than enough to take care of their families, but since it zooms past any chances it had to show genuine emotion, I didn’t feel the need to really care.
There’s a scene early in the movie where Cesar’s son has a black eye from fighting at school. The fight started because the other kids were calling him racial slurs. This scene is then completely forgotten for thirty minutes and they decide that then was a good time to continue this plot for a few seconds. This happens maybe four times throughout the movie, and each are spread apart from each other by twenty to thirty minutes of main plot. I. Don’t. Care. You haven’t even given me a reason to like this kid, movie. He has no personality to speak of because they didn’t give him enough screen time to develop his character at all. This can also unfortunately be said for every other character in the movie.
Honestly, that was the only real problem I had with the movie, it’s just too bad that that one thing caused so many glaring issues with the whole product. Now, this movie isn’t worthless or terrible. It’s second half, a.k.a., the last forty minutes of the movie, are actually pretty good. They slow down the pace enough to actually let us get to know Cesar as a character and to actually give him emotion and turmoil. There is a moment in the movie where Cesar is fasting and the movie almost slows down to a crawl; which is exactly what a scene with a man dying from hunger so that peace can be returned to his people should feel. There are tons of shots of Cesar visibly writhing in pain in a dinky little bed as word of his fast spread. I genuinely felt bad for him and I felt his convictions for his cause. The rest of the movie continues this way too. There are scenes of Hispanic men and women being beaten and shot for simply standing around with a picket sign that are filmed in such a way that it portrays the brutality to such a disgusting degree and this all follows the slower pacing to allow us to take in the tone of the scenes and appreciate them more. That ultimately makes the ending all the more rewarding to get to. But is that enough to save the movie?
In conclusion, I have mixed feeling about Cesar Chavez. There’s a bit to learn and love from this movie, but because of the many, many mistakes made in the beginning of it, it’s really hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m going to give this movie a 6 out of 10 for “Meh.” It’s an okay movie with an ending that makes it a one-time watch, but I honesty wouldn’t want to see it more than that. With a whole hour of the movie being an unfollowable mess, the final forty minutes are sort of ruined with characters who we still know nothing about. If you’re an American history buff who enjoys movies that tell great tales from our past, you might be better off with a book that does the job better. It’s probably cheaper than the ticket it costs to go see it.