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Cesar Chavez
America Ferrera and Michael Pena in "Cesar Chavez"
Michael Pena in "Cesar Chavez"
Michael Pena in “Cesar Chavez”

Cesar Chavez was a labor leader who worked tirelessly from the 1960’s through the 1980’s for the civil rights of American migrant farm workers. He passed away in 1993 of natural causes, but his legacy now lives on in two separate films.

One of these is a dramatic interpretation of his life simply titled “Cesar Chavez,” and another is a documentary called “Cesar’s Last Fast,” which focuses on the last of several times that Chavez fasted in protest to bring attention to the injustices being done to the workers.

America Ferrera and Michael Pena in "Cesar Chavez"
America Ferrera and Michael Pena in “Cesar Chavez”

In these days when many people question whether labor unions are necessary, these films are timely and important. I recommend watching both of them because together, they provide a well-rounded education about an important movement in our history.

As you will see in the films, the plight of the workers improved a bit in the 1960’s and 1970’s, only to worsen again in the 1980’s. This often happens when new government officials are elected and public interest wanes. So, the fight never seems to end. I hope that parents will show these movies to their teenagers so that the significance of what took place during Chavez’s life is not forgotten.

In “Cesar Chavez,” Michael Pena (“American Hustle”) plays the title role, and America Ferrera (“Ugly Betty”) plays his wife, Helen. Rosario Dawson (“Rent”) plays Dolores Huerta, another important figure in the movement, and John Malkovich plays a fictional farm owner who fights against the workers’ demands. Mexican actor, Diego Luna, directed the film, with much camera work close to the actors’ faces, drawing us into their emotional experience.

The performances are universally excellent, and it’s a fascinating story that will probably surprise those who don’t know about it. I suggest watching the dramatic film first, which will whet your appetite for seeing the real people in the documentary, from which you will learn a great deal more. In fact, the documentary shows that the story is considerably more dramatic than what you’ll see in the Diego Luna version.

Huerta and Chavez’s son are among those who are interviewed in “Cesar’s Last Fast,” interspersed with archival footage of Chavez himself, including during the time of his last 36-day fast in 1988. Several people, including actor Martin Sheen, broke into tears during their interviews.

I lived in Los Angeles from 1989-1991, and I took part in the grape boycotts at that time, which were organized by Chavez’s group on behalf of the workers. Regardless of the great strides that were made by their organization, the conditions in which these workers labor are still unjust and inhumane.

The real Cesar Chavez in a still from "Cesar's Last Fast"
The real Cesar Chavez in a still from “Cesar’s Last Fast”

In “Cesar’s Last Stand,” filmmakers  and  have created a compelling portrait of someone who was born to humble means and became a dynamic leader whose accomplishments made a difference in a large number of lives. An estimated 50,000 people showed up for his funeral.

The story of Chavez and the United Farm Workers is inspiring and shows what we can achieve if we have the passion and determination to do it.

“Cesar Chavez” opened in theaters on March 28, 2014. After its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, “Cesar’s Last Stand” will open at the Quad Theater in New York on April 18, 2014 and at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles on April 25, 2014. If you can’t catch them in theaters, watch for them on VOD and DVD.

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