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'Cesar Chavez' Biopic Is A Timid Portrayal Of A Remarkable Man

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On paper, the biopic of Cesar Chavez held a lot of promise, with a loaded cast that included the likes of America Ferrara (as Chavez's wife, Helen), Rosario Dawson (as Dolores Huerta), and John Malkovich (as A Fictional Evil White Guy) in supporting roles. Taking the titular lead is Michael Peña, a wonderful character actor whose largest role before Cesar Chavez was alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in the well-received 2012's End Of Watch. It was also refreshing to see that helming the project would be a Hispanic voice, Mexican actor Diego Luna (best known for Alfonso Cuarón's Y Tu Mamá También) directing his first English-language feature film. It's really too bad it ended up so dull.

Peña gives it his all in portraying a man of such stature, but Keir Pearson and Timothy J. Sexton's script doesn't give him much to work with. When Peña's Chavez isn't chanting his trademark "¡Sí se puede!", he speaks in platitudes about unity and nonviolence or pitching his movement, and it hardly gets much deeper than that. A subplot involving Chavez's baseball-loving son (Eli Vargas) feeling neglected by a father so involved in the lives of others never feels like it runs as an undercurrent of the film, it only pops up when the plot just so happens to need some emotional heft.

Cesar Chavez unfortunately falls into the same traps of most biopics of remarkable men and women. Instead of being interested in creating an engaging narrative or diving into the thorny issues that are a part of the story of notable people of color like Chavez, Luna's film ends up being a bullet-points summary of Chavez's activism from the founding of the United Farm Workers up through the Salad Bowl Strike. Scenes play like vignettes that have no connective tissue, and supporting characters are relegated to the sidelines despite the fact that Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta played key roles in the life and work of Cesar Chavez. Ultimately, Cesar Chavez ends up feeling like a History Channel special (when the channel was actually about history and not aliens) with better production values and actors and without voiceover narration. A radical man of history deserves a movie that doesn't feel so gutless.

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Cesar Chavez opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.