Criticism of Cesar Chavez Film Misses Big Picture

OneStepataTimeWhen I saw a preview of the new Cesar Chavez film and wrote a positive review, I did not foresee that I would be the only author of a book on Chavez and the UFW that viewed it positively. And while I understand the critiques offered by Marshall Ganz, Matt Garcia and others, they missed the bigger picture.
Diego Luna’s new film, Cesar Chavez, has been criticized on two main grounds.

First, it failed to show that the farmworkers were a movement filled with key organizers and volunteers, not simply a showcase for a great man named Cesar Chavez. This is the chief criticism I made in my review. For those like Ganz whose own key roles in the movement the film excised from history, their anger is understandable.

Second, the film ends in 1970, ignoring how Chavez began dismantling the movement he launched by that decade’s end. I thought the film should have ended in 1975, when Governor Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. But requiring the film to continue into the 1980’s would have required at least thirty minutes in additional running time, and its unlikely funds were available to create a two-hour film.

Why Does Chavez Matter?

Is there value in a new generation of activists learning about Cesar Chavez? If so, what do we want a film about Chavez to teach?The theme of my book, Beyond the Fields, was that Chavez mattered because he launched a movement that pioneered critical strategies and tactics that helped build the immigrant rights movement and other social justice campaigns. I wrote about how he brought down his own movement, but felt that his impact should also be measured by his providing the leading incubator for young activists of the era. The UFW turned two generations of young people into lifelong activists for change.

Others, including Miriam Pawel and Matt Garcia, see Chavez’s failings as an essential part of his story, if not the core part. They and other Chavez critics think the UFW leader matters as a cautionary tale, not as a model for inspiring future generations.

But if those critical of the film had attended the preview audience where I saw it, they would have seen hundreds of young Latinos inspired and excited by Cesar Chavez’s standing up to growers, sheriff’s and the Central Valley’s white power structure. They see Chavez’s principled defiance as a model for their own challenges to immigration laws that break up families and cause misery for millions of Latinos.

Cesar Chavez stood up to his political allies like California’s Democratic Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s Democratic U.S. Senator John Tunney and refused to accept a watered-down farm labor act. This example is a model for the young immigration activists today who refuse to accept political ally Democratic President Barack Obama’s claim that he cannot stop deportations. These activists have pushed the immigrant rights movement to challenge Obama directly, which is precisely what Cesar Chavez would have done.

Latino Political Empowerment

Cesar Chavez is also an inspiration for a new generation of activists because he did more to increase Latino political empowerment in the United States than anyone in U.S. history. His California electoral operation became the template for Barack Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign, laying the groundwork for huge Latino voter turnout increases in California and the formerly red states of Colorado and Florida.

The young people in the audience when I saw the film rushed to have their pictures taken with Dolores Huerta, treating her as an icon. None cared that Huerta joined with Chavez in purging key UFW organizers in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Nor were they upset that her contributions got short-changed on screen. All they saw was a woman in a male-dominated field who had fought all her life for justice for farmworkers and other low-paid workers. And they admire an activist who, unlike some critics of the UFW’s past, never left the struggle for justice.

The film on Cesar Chavez was not made for the farmworker movement’s historians, or for former UFW volunteers. It was made to inspire a new generation of activists to pursue social and economic justice.

That’s the big picture I think critics of the film have missed.

And I’m mystified by what they believe denigrating the film accomplishes. All of us who have written books about Chavez have told the full story, and those seeking such information know where to find it.

But we hardly ever see a mainstream film that inspires grassroots activism for social change. And a movie about a Latino social justice hero is even rarer.

Diego Luna’s Cesar Chavez provided both. And that, rather than the extent of the film’s loyalty to the “truth” about the UFW leader, is why the movie deserves our support.

If I were teaching a course designed to encourage activism, I would not hesitate to show Cesar Chavez. And amidst rising opposition to Obama’s deportation policy, many of those leaving theaters after viewing the film will be taking the UFW’s “Si Se Puede” spirit with them as they battle for justice for millions of Latino immigrants.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

2 Responses

  1. Randy
    You seem to be missing the big picture here. It’s because of the interest of the rising generation – Latino and not – that such a one dimensional portrayal of Cesar and culturally exclusivist misrepresentation of the movement is so damaging. Fortunately you do not teach a course on “social activism” if this is your understanding of leadership, organizing, and social movements. You do yourself no credit to dismiss my critique of the film to personal pique. Marshall

  2. […] another view of the biopic, read Randy Johnson’s review and defense of the movie against […]

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