Cesar Chavez (* * * out of four: rated PG-13; opening Friday nationwide) focuses on the dedication of the civil rights activist and his unflagging commitment to non-violence.
The story of the Arizona-born labor organizer and his efforts to bring dignity and fair wages to migrant farm workers is not only powerful but timely, given divided attitudes toward immigration and unionization.
"They should go back to their own country" is a frequent refrain from those who resent the farm workers' protests for a more livable wage. It's a sentiment that still prevails in some corners, giving the film added resonance.
The movie traces Chavez's efforts from 1962 to 1970, from his founding of the United Farm Workers through the national grape boycott he spearheaded, prompting grape growers to agree to better wages.
Much of the action is set in and around Delano, a central California farming community where Chavez began organizing workers.
Michael Peña embodies the determination, idealism and gentle spirit of Chavez in an appealingly subtle performance.
The film conveys the challenges of living with someone so idealistically committed to a cause. Chavez's eight children sometimes got neglected. His teenage son Fernando (Eli Vargas) complains: "It's so annoying the way you turn everything into a lesson."
A staunch advocate of non-violence, Chavez organized peaceful protests, legal pickets and a 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, and endured a 25-day hunger strike. He drew the admiration of Sen. Robert Kennedy (Jack Holmes) and the enmity of then-California governor Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon (pictured in archival footage).
Chavez fought discrimination tirelessly, remaining humble and soft-spoken, even when threatened by angry grape growers.
"It's never been about the grapes," he says. "It's always been about the people. The poor, the marginalized — these people have names, they have families. What we want to accomplish is to give these people a voice."
Director Diego Luna, the Mexican actor best known for his seminal role in 2001's Y Tu Mama Tambien, potently captures the spirit and legacy of Chavez.
America Ferrera plays Chavez's steadfast wife, Helen, who shares his passion to help the less fortunate. Ferrera brings fiery intelligence to the role and is well-matched with Peña, whose measured portrayal is deeply affecting.
In contrast, those who oppose Chavez are fairly one-note.
Biopics can be tricky to pull off. Blending historical context with personal details can be a difficult balancing act. It's a challenge to paint an accurate picture of a heroic person while also conveying his weaknesses. The danger of deification looms.
While Chavez occasionally comes across as quasi-saintly, the film is credibly told, with intriguing scenes focusing on dissension within the movement over the issue of violent tactics.
The first Mexican-American to have a significant voice in the USA, Chavez offers closing words that are among his most moving: "You can't humiliate someone who has pride. You can't oppress someone who's not afraid," and "Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed."
While many American schools, streets and parks are named for him, this is the first film about the iconic civil rights leader. (The film's opening coincides with Cesar Chavez Day, March 31, a state holiday in California, Colorado and Texas.)
Enlivened by a strong cast, Cesar Chavez is a straightforward and inspiring account of a noble man.