Anyone hoping to understand the long, fierce struggle to win a decent life for the highly exploited men and women who harvest our fruits and vegetables should not miss the recently released film, “Cesar Chavez.” Although technically a feature film, it’s actually a documentary, in that it vividly recreates – and accurately — key events in the struggle led by Chavez and the United Farm Workers union he headed.
Historical documentaries, even the best of them, rely heavily on black and white footage and interviews that can’t possibly give you the feeling of being there, can’t show you how it actually was.
The Chavez film, however, puts you there, front and center, on the scene and behind the scene. Michael Pena, who plays Chavez, not only looks much like Chavez, but sounds as he did.
Believe me. I was there as a news reporter covering many of the events that are depicted. There were eerie moments when I was watching the film that I thought I was watching a newsreel. I actually began looking for myself in some of the recreated scenes of events where I had been present.
There’s President Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers addressing a crowd of farm workers to pledge his powerful union’s financial support. And there I am, notebook ready, standing just in front of him. And that must be me next t to Senator Robert Kennedy, as he emphatically voices his support.
But, no, Reuther, Kennedy and the others are actors.
The rotten working and living conditions that led to the farm workers demand for union rights are briefly but effectively shown. So is the picketing and other decisive support of urban shoppers for the UFW’s boycott of the grapes grown by growers who refused to sign union contracts.
Featured, too, are the farm workers’ long marches through the fertile Central Valley that added so much to their support and to their winning of union contracts and the law granting the legal right of unionization to California’s farm workers.
There are many dramatic moments in the film, none more dramatic than those showing Chavez during the 25-day fast he waged in 1988 to draw greater attention to the farm workers’ cause and show the workers that there were effective non-violent tactics they could use instead of violent tactics urged by some that would harm them and others.
Pickets already faced the threat of harm in the person of beefy Teamster Union guerillas who growers hired to menace farm worker pickets at their farms. They’re accurately played in the movie by some scary looking guys who clearly weren’t showing any love to the pickets..
Great love was shown, however, by UFW members and supporters who brought food to Chavez, crowding around him, urging him to “eat! eat!” as he lay in bed, pale and wan.
The film has its villains, certainly, in the person of a nasty looking, mean talking grower spokesman and his cohorts, who were indeed nasty and mean for the most part. But this is a film about heroes, some of whom have often been overlooked, such as the Filipinos who actually began the vineyard strike that first brought great public attention to Chavez and the Chicanos e led.
The important role of the UFW’s Dolores Huerta and other women in what came to be “La Causa” is not overlooked either. Nor is the important help of Helen Chavez, Cesar’s wife, and his son, Fernando.
Make no mistake: Watching this film will make you a witness to one of the great social movements of our time.
Copyright 2014 Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and KQED-TV who has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a print and broadcast reporter, editor, author and commentator. He is the co-author of A Long Time Coming; The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm
Workers. (Macmillan). Reach him at his website, dickmeister.com, which includes several hundred of his columns.