The glossy Indiewood biopic has both multiplied and self-marginalized over the last few years, usually opting to tell its story either at the most obscenely feverish pitch possible (Diana) or so uncannily earnest it’s borderline inappropriate (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). Diego Luna’s passion project, Cesar Chavez, follows the latter strain, but to recognize the film as a successful piece of historical info-tainment is to concede a certain political toothlessness; by now, Chavez’s virtue is a given, as is the civil rights movement birthed by his United Farm Workers. The film’s euphonious attitude toward its namesake, played by Michael Peña, imposes itself from frame one, when Chavez recounts his humble origins to a London radio station. Spinning a folksy wisdom, Peña practically glows as the camera hovers around him, pulling the story back a few years to the grape fields of southern California.
The sin of hagiography committed by Luna, alongside screenwriters Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton, is relatively minor to the film’s function, and not just because Chavez was a bona fide hero. Between historic bullet points, the film has a considerable amount of on-screen texture: magic-hour BBQs in Chavez’s backyard, huddled dormitories full of migrant braceros in the dark, brooding night drives along California’s endless highways. If Luna and cinematographer Enrique Chediak seem to have borrowed their palette from Terrence Malick, the screenplay lingers on nothing, beginning at the outset of the UFW’s Delano Grape Strike and charting growth of both the boycott and Chavez’s nonviolent political philosophy—a relatively tight five years in rapid fire. By breezing through so many immaculately detailed real-life environments, Cesar Chavez stands in noteworthy contrast to the studio historical epics that blow their bank on a handful of glistening sets or double-retouched master shots.
Pearson and Sexton’s screenplay doesn’t waste time fuming over the complicity of state police and landowners in violence against migrant workers, gradually narrowing its perspective to find a supervillain in vineyard-owner Bogdnaovitch (John Malkovich). The actor gives his role whatever shreds of ambiguity are allowed in this type of biopic, but Cesar Chavez’s otherwise sonorous attitude toward the UFW’s actions mean Bogdnoavitch and his cronies appear mainly as comic relief whenever Chavez and his team have another hard-won victory. Luna’s granular approach to the campaign’s steady trickle means the entire film is invested in Peña’s performance, and to that end Luna’s casting pays off: Not unlike Peña’s prior supporting roles, Chavez is marked by an explosive anger kept under a cherubic, sweet-natured mask, providing the surprise lacking in the story’s text. After all, Luna wouldn’t be making the film if the boycott had failed.