Si, Se Puede. Yes We Can.
Ask almost anyone under 30 about these words and they’ll likely associate them with Barack Obama’s history-making 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. But before millions of idealistic millennials began chanting them at college campuses across the country, the slogan served as the rallying cry for a different charismatic community organizer leading a very different sort of movement.
The new biopic Cesar Chavez (rated PG-13 for language and some violence) captures the dusty beauty of California’s fertile Central Valley, and a cast of actors headed by Michael Pena, Rosario Dawson, and John Malkovich credibly bring to life the principle factions involved in the 1960s California grape strike. Unfortunately, the script fails to offer anything more than a simpleminded good guys/bad guys perspective, reducing the farm owners (not to mention Ronald Reagan) to a caricature of racism and inexplicable meanness that make no account for real financial issues or ideological differences.
Director Diego Luna is too interested in making an idol of the founder of the United Farm Workers to explore the complexities of a flesh-and-blood man who sometimes espoused political views significantly out of step with today’s progressive movement. While Chavez did rally for better pay and working conditions for domestic, mostly Mexican and Filipino farm workers, he and his organization also took the logical stance that one cannot be for raising the wages of those currently laboring in fields, vineyards, and orchards yet also support unfettered illegal immigration. Chavez and the UFW were virulently anti-illegal-immigration, even offering to report illegal immigrants to the INS.
Just as Luna is unwilling to look at any aspects of Chavez’s life and work that deviate from modern liberal lockstep, he likewise avoids examining why the influence of the United Farm Workers movement has, like many other union movements, grown nearly nonexistent in recent years.
The life and work of Cesar Chavez should cast a fascinating spotlight on today’s political landscape and some of the issues the country is debating most hotly today. Though well-acted, Diego Luna’s hagiographic film never manages to shine a meager beam.