I rarely go to the movies, even though I live in the heart of movieland, but I went to see Cesar Chavez last night because I wanted to feel something—to be reminded that we can indeed organize against (and within) industries that create a chasm of income inequality between the few anointed masters and the swells of laborers and apprentices. I wanted to be catapulted back into the happy frenzy of my student days, when I believed I would always be an activist first, and everything else second—a writer, an educator, an itinerant, a family member.
Of course, there is a concrete privilege in wanting to be inspired to organize for change, rather than needing to advocate for change—even if you barely have the time and tools to do so—because your very survival is on the line. And, of course, it’s too much to ask a biopic to gather up all the pieces of yourself you lost along the way, to somehow knit together the constant, quiet drive for justice with more plebeian requisites (earning a wage, cleaning the stovetop) that build and build, and individualist pursuits (seeing one’s name in print) that we long for, long for in our DWYL culture.
But still, I had hoped for more than I got. The film was tame, lifeless almost—on a topic that should be so life-giving. It’s a good enough overview of the 1965-1970 grape strike & international boycott over fair wages for California’s Filipino and Latino farm workers, and has a necessary place in the mainstream, so that we can at least know the outline of our history, understand that something was hard won. But we’re not left with an understanding of just how it was hard won, who all the players were, what the essential hangups were along the way, and, most importantly, we’re not left tingling with the inspiration to take on the many, many remaining struggles that are far from being won.
LA Weekly’s Inkoo Kang gives a more thorough review of the film here:
Keir Pearson’s script plays out like a highlight reel of the grape strike. It fails to effectively dramatize the slow process of converting ordinary laborers to the workers’ cause and of selling the boycott to everyday consumers.
Still, see the film if you don’t know the story. Then, read more about the story, as I plan to do, the nuanced history, so that we can feel something, be shaken from our practiced conformity, feel the thing we need to feel to believe we can change the world in tiny, or huge, ways.