"Cesar Chavez," a biographical drama about the pioneering Latino rights activist, wades only ankle-deep into some complicated territory. Chavez, who spent his life fighting for California farmworkers and, by extension, Hispanic Americans, died in 1993, a hugely inspirational figure even if his tactics and politics could be troubling. The big-screen adaptation of his life is nothing if not timely, but it's disappointingly short on nuance and has no appetite for controversy.
Few outside California may know precisely why Chavez's name graces so many parks and streets. The movie works as a quick-hit explanation: Beginning mainly in the 1960s, Chavez (Michael Peña), a Mexican-American from Arizona, began organizing farm laborers into what would eventually become the United Farm Workers union. His greatest achievement, in the face of political opposition from President Richard Nixon and sometimes physical violence from white farmers, was a crippling grape boycott that forced California growers to sign labor contracts in 1970.
"Cesar Chavez" has all the problems that usually plague biopics, beginning with an inability to coherently compress decades into minutes. Director Diego Luna uses news footage to telegraph information but whittles actual scenes down to blips; conversely, he dwells too long on Chavez's 25-day fast to promote nonviolence -- a fuzzy concept never satisfyingly explained. The fine cast includes America Ferrera as Chavez's wife, Helen, and Eli Vargas as his son Fernando, while a spirited Rosario Dawson plays UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, but all are reduced to bit players. John Malkovich, who helped produce the film, gets far more screen time as Bogdanovich, a bullying California farmer who speaks schoolboy Spanish to his workers.
Peña (he was the fake sheik in "American Hustle") plays Chavez with an earthy humility, but the script, by Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, omits any darker, more interesting personality traits. Beating this movie to market is a new, 560-page biography by former Newsday editor Miriam Pawel, "The Crusades of Cesar Chavez," which delves into the leader's sometimes cultish organizing tactics and his unexpectedly strong stance against illegal immigrants. It's proof that "Cesar Chavez" could have painted a more complicated and dramatic picture.
PLOT The story of the labor leader who spent his life fighting for Latino and farmworkers' rights.
RATING PG-13 (violence, language)
CAST Michael Peña, John Malkovich, Rosario Dawson
BOTTOM LINE Useful as a crash course in Chavez's main achievements, but this is the simplified version of a complicated and sometimes controversial story.