Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez: Not a History Lesson?


I love Diego Luna. I seriously consider him and his friend, fellow actor Gael Garcia Bernal, modern performer slayers of bad Mexican cinema — the kind that went unchallenged from the 60s to the 90s that was heavy on emulating Hollywood-style action flicks and other vapid genres and predictable plots.

That’s precisely why I’m puzzled by Luna – being in such a high caliber of a fearless, raw film like Y Tu Mama Tambien - choosing to take such a safe route in making the Cesar Chavez film. I am most curious with the reported one-dimensional character portrayal of Chavez, e.g., leaving out his alleged use of the word “wetbacks” and his other not so palatable sides as explored in a new book taking on the multiple facets of an imperfect leader. Via The LA Times:

Chavez railed against illegal immigration, encouraging deportations — even though in parts of California most farm workers were undocumented, and many were willing to organize and become part of the UFW.
Cesar’s cousin, Manuel Chavez, working for Chavez and the UFW, hired thugs to beat up migrants at the border in Arizona and bribed local police to let the vigilantes do their work, a project, as Pawel notes, decidedly at odds with Cesar’s “steadfast commitment to nonviolence.”

I, for one, would rather want to see all the raw dimensions of a leader laid out on the screen. It would show me that he or she was a human being, someone that I can relate to instead of an air-brushed fabrication. I would rather honor an imperfect leader that I knew had faults and shortcomings and evolved in his views rather than worship an action figure packaged and sold at our outlet malls with a side of Budweiser.

There are other issues with the film, and I invite folks to read Julio Varela’s excellent review of the film over at Latino Rebels. He  verbalized exactly what I was feeling in his closing thoughts:

In the end, Latinos should go and see this movie, and after that, have real discussions about it. My biggest concern is this: at what point do Latinos go beyond supporting mediocre movies and when will we get content that is outstanding and thought-provoking? “César Chávez,” as well-intentioned as it was, became just another ok film with poor plot choices.

I no longer want “ok.” I want “superior” and “top-notch.” I want “authentic.”

We will get there.

It really comes down to being fearless. I’d rather want to connect to human beings, with all their good qualities and their ugly sides too so we can get to decide for ourselves.

The result of Diego Luna’s choice in how he directed the Cesar Chavez film in the end is a bit bittersweet. There is no question that we all want more story telling about Latinos being made by Latinos. We all really want this film to succeed. Heck — we’ve been fighting for these kind of films for years now. But we should be fearless, not absurdly safe when we approach our Latino folklore. Enough with the kissing of rings already.

Maybe the one-dimensionality of the film was the result of vulture Hollywood and Televisa producers in the end getting the best of Luna. Yet again, Luna is already saying that films are not history lessons. Yet that perspective ignores that in the end, meaningful art is action, not an spectator sport.

But whatever the process was like, I for one have grown tired and frankly bored with nativists throwing it in our faces that Cesar Chavez was anti-“illegal immigration” too as if that gives them license to be bigots.

The Chavez film was a missed opportunity to address those claims but were glossed over apparently in the name of air-brushing history.

Update: did you know that California is STILL the only state where farm workers have the right to organize? Read Cindy Rodriguez’s CNN piece: ‘Why the ‘Cesar Chavez’ biopic matters now.