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Saturday, Mar 29 2014 10:28 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Imperfection of 'Cesar Chavez' would've suited the man himself

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By ROBERT PRICE, Californian executive editor rprice@bakersfield.com

The list of landmarks named for labor leader Cesar Chavez is a long one. In California alone at least 22 schools, six libraries, seven streets and 10 parks are named for the man. That's three times as many civic tributes in this state as Franklin Delano Roosevelt has across the entire country.

That doesn't mean Chavez's lasting impacts are common knowledge today. Students at Cesar Chavez High School -- and there are six in the U.S. -- presumably have some clue about the arc of his too-short life. Then again, maybe they don't.

Hollywood can help alleviate these knowledge gaps among the general populace -- to varying degrees, anyway. The reigning Academy Award winner for Best Picture, "12 Years a Slave," is said to be a reasonably accurate representation of the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup upon which is it based. But any praise a "historical" film might attract has to be considered in the context of a nigh-impossible task: meshing entertainment value and profit potential with integrity of purpose. Ask Oliver Stone about that: Warren Commission member Gerald R. Ford called Stone's 1991 film "JFK" "a desecration to the memory of President Kennedy" and a "fraudulent misrepresentation of the truth." Of course it grossed a respectable $205 million worldwide, which probably helped assuage the sting of a former president's scorn.

Now comes "Cesar Chavez," a film that traces the flawed Latino Ghandi through the most transformational years of his life, 1962 to 1970. That was the year his Delano-based United Farm Workers won concessions from major valley growers that included portable toilets in the fields, better access to drinking water and stronger protections against pesticide exposure. Do those things seem like fundamental rights? They do today. Surely they seemed so then, too.

Actor Michael Pena's portrayal of Chavez is not especially nuanced but it's a tour de force compared to the caricatures that passed for the growers. They are crude, stubborn and one-dimensional; if they had financial (or any) motives for denying workers those rights for so long, we don't hear about it. It doesn't matter that those reasons cannot have had any basis in fairness or humanity by today's standards. We needed to hear them in order to understand exactly what was at stake from their perspective. You keep waiting for actor John Malkovich, horrifically miscast as a fictional grower, to explain the reason for his side's obstinance, but that might have required him to abandon his snipped, controlled cadence and actually move his face.

Consequently, Chavez's detractors may call foul -- and in today's heated environment of hyper-partisanship and aggressive advocacy for immigration reform, Chavez may have more detractors now than when the UFW was fomenting its ultimately successful 1965 grape boycott.

Imperfect though it is, however, "Cesar Chavez" needed to be made. It needed to hit big screens across the country, in cities and in farm towns. It needed buzz and bad reviews to go with the good (yes, some liked it). And it needed to allow itself a red-carpet affair like the one at Bakersfield's Marriott Hotel Saturday night, which brought to town Jack Holmes, who played Robert Kennedy so deftly some must have wondered if a long-lost brother had awakened; Rosario Dawson, who played a fiery if only intermittently seen Dolores Huerta; and Dolores Huerta, who still plays a fiery Dolores Huerta. "Cesar Chavez" needed the stamp of pop-culture validation that only a Hollywood production can supply. Director Diego Luna couldn't get Antonio Banderas to play Chavez, as some had suggested, perhaps playfully -- but then the film's subject was hardly a swash-buckling ladies' man, and this was no action fantasy.

Luna found his investors and, with just $10 million to work with, made his film. A few more million would have benefitted the project immensely, but Luna's modest resources also lent a poetic balance to the proceedings. Cesar Chavez the man, like "Cesar Chavez" the movie, was the antithesis of excess. IMAX and Dolby would have worn on his martyred visage like a tiara on Mary.

Chavez lived just 66 years. Celluloid and its digital progeny endure forever, or at least beyond our memory that the visual account in question ever existed in the first place. For the founder of a movement that evolved into something bigger and broader and well beyond the realm of a farm labor organization, it is an appropriate chronicle of a salient history.

Chavez's soft-spokenness belied a quiet strength. Perhaps, with time, this quiet, understated film about his life will be seen as having achieved something akin to that. "Cesar Chavez" the film might have been bigger and louder; it might have burned itself into our senses like the summer San Joaquin Valley sun. And Cesar Chavez, a small screen man who lived a big screen life, might well have hated it.

-- Email Executive Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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