No one taught me about Cesar Chavez in school. I never heard of the man until he factored into a Simpsons joke, one in which part of the humor is that Homer didn’t know what Chavez looked like, so he pictured him as Cesar Romero (and this was in a latter-day episode of the show, to boot). American history is heavily whitewashed, in every sense of the word. Slavery and the civil rights movement are taught begrudgingly, while the myriad injustices against Native peoples still go glossed over. And even as the United States’ population of people of Hispanic origin continues to rise, their part in history is drastically underrepresented.
Movies can’t solve our ills, but they can, at the very least, nudge us in a better direction. I hope that nothing but good things come from the release of the new biopic Cesar Chavez. Directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña as the labor leader, the film focuses on Chavez’s life between 1965 and 1975, during the Delano grape strike and the Salad Bowl strike. The effort is laudable, but the execution is disappointingly by-the-numbers. It goes through the motions of reenacting history without illuminating who Chavez was or helping the audience understand the plight of the farm workers beyond the most basic, visceral sympathy. Over the years, several documentaries have been made about Chavez, and all of them are better resources for learning about him and his work.
There are some lurking on YouTube, such as a mostly unidentifiable half-hour production of the now-defunct British channel Thames Television. Listed on the site as “Fight in the Fields” with no title or credits to be found in the two-part video, it’s an excellent overview both of the dismal conditions in which Mexican-American laborers worked at the time and their protesting tactics against the companies employing them. It’s also a time capsule of a more fearless period of journalism. The program makes no bones of referring to the Japanese internment camps (which were then serving as housing for the workers) as “concentration camps.”
In 1996, PBS ran a multi-part series called Chicano! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement, which chronicles the Mexican-American crusade for equal rights in the ’60s and ’70s. The second episode, “The Struggle in the Fields,” is dedicated to the unionization efforts of the farm workers under Chavez’s leadership. It is essentially a more in-depth variation of the “Fight in the Fields” short and was also produced with the benefit of hindsight. Chavez as a character also features more prominently, his faith and convictions receiving attention as the guiding force of the movement.
Another PBS documentary is 1997’s The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers’ Struggle. This two-hour film, rather than featuring Chavez as the center of activism, instead uses his life as the focal point for the change that both affected him and that he affected. It’s advertised as a blend of biography and social history, and that’s an apt way to approach the movie. By beginning with Chavez’s childhood and following him through his whole life, the doc gets the viewer inside his head in a way that the new Cesar Chavez narrative feature can’t quite manage. There are allusions to Chavez’s past in the biopic, but nothing more concrete than that.
Finally, Cesar’s Last Fast is a more recent effort, having just premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This doc, which opens in theaters in April, uses a single event in Chavez’s life as a way to look at everything else he accomplished. In 1988, he underwent the last of his “spiritual fasts,” this one as an act of penance for what he perceived as his failure to properly protect farmers from the harmful effects of pesticides. For 36 days he imbibed nothing but water. The film’s big hook is that it has reams of never-before-seen footage of Chavez, much of it taken of him during that fast. While Michael Peña performs well as Chavez, it’s no substitute for watching the real man at work. Seeing him waste away is agonizing, a jolt of emotion that the biopic can’t match.
In a period where workers’ rights are under serious threat and Hispanic-American issues are more relevant than ever, I will be all too glad if Cesar Chavez helps draw attention to these causes. If nothing else, may it boost the representation of a drastically underserved minority in film. And I hope that anyone seeking to learn more about Cesar Chavez and his struggle finds at least one of these documentaries, so that they can better understand these topics and what can be done about them today.
“Fight in the Fields” can be watched in two parts on YouTube.
Chicano! also seems to only be available currently on YouTube, the “Struggle in the Fields” episode here.
The Fight in the Fields is available on DVD for education purposes through The Cinema Guild. Hopefully there will be a cheaper home use version released.
Cesar’s Last Fast is also currently available on DVD for education purposes but also is currently still on the fest circuit and will be released theatrically beginning April 18th. Visit the film’s website for information.