Cesar Chavez, directed by Diego Luna and starring Michael Peña, Rosario Dawson, John Malkovich, and America Ferrera, tells not just the story of an icon in the Mexican-American community, but provides a window into American history and a civil rights movement that left a lasting impact on the country. This is why the movie matters.
1. It’s an American story.
“It’s an American story. He was an American, born and raised, and he led an American movement based on American principles that historically apply to all of us,” America Ferrera, who plays Helen Chavez, the wife of Cesar Chavez and his partner in the movement, told BuzzFeed.
2. “I’m angry that I live in a world where a man that picks the food can’t feed his family.”
Cesar Chavez is a film about injustice — and the fact that the workers who were doing backbreaking work picking the food of Americans operated in substandard conditions, were not included in unions and were paid very little in sweltering heat with very little water.
3. Cesar Chavez was an ordinary man who accomplished extraordinary things.
Ferrera says director Diego Luna wasn’t interested in telling the story of a hero or an icon — he wanted to tell the story of a man.
“It’s part of American history, you know?” Luna told BuzzFeed. “It’s easy to forget that this was a movement that sends a beautiful message, a message of nonviolence, a message of change being possible.”
4. Today’s immigration activists say they learned tactics from Chavez and the farmworkers.
“The movie is a window into what happened at that time,” prominent DREAMer Erika Andiola said. “We learned a lot of the tactics that he used. He did empower folks in the field, that’s something we learned from, to empower people who are undocumented instead of folks talking for us.”
5. Martin Luther King Jr. saw virtue in Chavez’s struggle — and told him so.
In another telegram, Dr. King wrote, “As brothers in the fight for equality I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members … You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”
6. Chavez’s movement “figured out a way to connect the common housewife in the lives of Mexican-American and Filipino workers,” Ferrera said.
“The grapes you feed your family makes you part of it — you can change the supply chain,” she added.
7. Senator Robert F. Kennedy was a friend of Chavez and fiercely believed in his cause.
“I did not know how crucial it was, the moment when Cesar and Robert F. Kennedy met and kind of started working together,” Luna said. The movie shows their relationship and a scene based on this encounter and others.
8. He understood the movement needed to be humanized.
“We need to tell them personal stories of people in the fields because we’re fighting for human rights,” Chavez said in a speech to farmworkers in the movie.
9. Groups like La Santa Cecilia, who won a Grammy earlier this year and have a member who is a DREAMer, draw parallels between their struggle and the fight of the farmworkers for equal rights.
10. The cast and crew were constantly reminded of the hard lives of farmworkers through emotionally trying and difficult scenes.
“The thing is, we were reminded every day when we were in the fields why we were telling these stories — the actual workers were there,” Luna said.
“We would be shooting and all around you they were picking the grapes; you would see the hard work behind every grape, and the faces, the faces of everyone. It was very easy to get emotional. It’s not every time you have such a reminder of the importance of what you are doing.”
11. The family of Chavez, who has protected his legacy much like MLK Jr.’s family, worked with filmmakers for the first time.
The movie sees faithful re-creations, like this scene after a prolonged hunger strike by Chavez.
12. The film by Pantelion, a studio created in partnership between Lionsgate and Televisa, is the most high-profile entrant yet in an effort to create movies aimed at the fast-growing and movie-loving Latino audience.
The studio has Instructions Not Included under its belt, the highest-grossing Spanish-language film in the North American box office, and is banking on Cesar Chavez.
The effort makes sense in terms of size and appetite of the audience, after the most recent Fast & Furious film saw a monster Memorial Day weekend opening fueled in large part by 25% of its audience being Latino.
13. Some of the main characters depicted in the movie are still going strong with their work, like Dolores Huerta at 83.
Played by Rosario Dawson in the film, Huerta still does speeches around the country advocating for the communities she cares passionately about.
“The Latinos and immigrants of other countries are still doing the hard work. Promise me that you will go see the movie,” she said recently at a keynote speech for the Chicano and Chicana Studies Department at California State University.
14. The man inspired so many that 25,000 mourners came to his funeral on April 29, 1993.
Before the movie, Luna only knew a bit about Chavez, but it was enough.
“I knew about Cesar Chavez, about who he was, about how many people he moved, the iconic images of his funeral when thousands of farmworkers carried him through Delano. He was in a plain wood box, even then sending a message of equality,” he said.
15. His legacy lives on.
His son Paul Chavez, right, is the president and chairman of the Cesar Chavez Foundation. His granddaughter Julie Chavez Rodriguez, left, works at the White House as the deputy director of public engagement, and her cousin Cristina Chavez works in the agriculture department.
“When my grandfather decided to organize farmworkers, he didn’t just start a union, he galvanized a movement,” Rodriguez said recently.
“My grandfather taught them how to organize. Whether it was marching, knocking on doors, or passing out leaflets for the United Farm Workers, that was the first time many of them had ever organized or been involved in public action. So I knew that the real legacy that my grandfather left behind was in the hearts and minds of those that he touched who would never sit idle in the face of injustice.”