Not the Cesar Chavez I Knew

Cesar Chavez (photo wikimedia)

Cesar Chavez (photo wikimedia)

The new biopic of Cesar Chavez makes me sad—and angry. To be sure, it draws needed attention to a key chapter in American Latino, labor and social movement history, as well as to the man whose leadership was central to it all. But it does so by reducing the man, the movement and its meaning to caricatures. The lessons the film teaches contradict the real lessons of Chavez’s work. And the “excuse” that “no movie can tell the whole story” doesn’t really wash. An earlier film in which director Diego Luna had an acting role, Milk, does the man, movement and meaning justice. There have been others—just not this one.

Cesar’s core leadership gifts were relational. He had an ability to engage widely diverse individuals, organizations and institutions with distinct talents, perspectives and skills in a common effort. The film, however, depicts him as a loner: driving alone (when in reality he had given up driving), traveling alone (which he never did) and deciding alone (when his strength was in building a team that could respond quickly, creatively and proactively to the daily crises of a long and intense effort).

Cesar was an organizer’s organizer, the craft in which he prided himself. This required a focus on people, their strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of power and work behind the scenes. In the film, he gives speeches, which he avoided, and engages in shouting matches on the picket line, which he never did. A believer in the rhetoric of action for many years, he rarely held press conferences, speaking to the public instead from the scene of the action. Continue reading