The Chicano labor leader César Chávez can now join Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in the pantheon of heroes whose world-altering achievements are dutifully recounted in timid, lifeless films any substitute can pop into the school DVD player when the regular history teacher is out with the flu. With César Chávez, Mexican director Diego Luna, who co-starred in last year's space fantasy Elysium and explored bi-curiosity with Gael Garca Bernal in Y Tu Mama También, seems less interested in making human and revealing cinema than a live-action inspirational poster. When his Chávez stands at the lectern, Luna shoots lead actor Michael Peña from the shoulders up and from the side, gazing beatifically at the awed crowd.
The film focuses on the famed 1965–1970 grape strike that won higher wages and better working conditions for Mexican- and Filipino-American migrant laborers. Occasionally, it's possible to get a sense of Chávez as a man of his time -- specifically, as one player in the internationalist Third World movement of the 1960s, which emphasized commonalities between oppressed racial groups around the world. "They play the races against each other," sermonizes Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), a prominent labor leader. Not that you'd learn that from this film, which lectures against Latin machismo and yet almost entirely expunges women's contributions to the campaign.
Watching his cardboard cutout of Chávez shout, "Yes, we can," I was moved, but only to wish that one of the things "we" can do is to make a resonant, dramatically rich film about a leader who forcefully but nonviolently bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.