Powerfully showcasing the talents and extraordinary measures a single person takes in order to highlight an important life message is the astonishing message in the new biographical drama, ‘Cesar Chavez.’ Mexican-American actor Diego Luna, who made his second feature directorial effort with the film, after the 2010 comedy-drama, ‘Abel,’ stressed the influential efforts the title character took in order to change the conditions and perceptions farm workers faced 50 years ago. Former Independent Spirit Award-nominated actor Michael Pena also helped support the movie’s message of how relatable man can change the outlook and futures of everyone in his community, in his portrayal of the activist.
‘Cesar Chavez’ follows the title protagonist, a Mexican-American who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) in the 1960s in California. Cesar, who later became the best known Latino American civil rights activist, left his urban office job to return to the fields where he grew up, to help secure higher wages for farm workers. The union set out to help Mexicans and Filipinos, who were working grueling days for very low wages.
Supported by his loyal wife Helen (America Ferrera), Cesar and the union rose against their employers and the local community who refused to improve the farmers’ working condition, including the police and grape vineyard owner, Bogdanovitch (John Malkovich). The group began striking through non-violent means, which helped them gain the support from such government leaders as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes). While the movement also received opposition from other powerful leaders, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, and Cesar began to see his relationships with his children and family become strained, the UFW and leader never failed to give up on their mission.
Luna generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Cesar Chavez’ during a roundtable interview in New York City. Among other things, the director discussed how the Latino community can change its image in society if its members start to organize again, like how the workers unified under Chavez’s leadership, to once again prove they have the power to change their lives; how Pena genuinely changed his personality and morphed into his character to fully showcase Chavez’s humble leadership and determination to improve the lives of the farm workers; and how he wanted to tell a powerful story about Chavez, as a movie has never before been made about the civil rights activist.
Question (Q): How did you come up with the idea to make a film about Cesar Chavez, and did you have any idea how long it was going to take to make it?
Diego Luna (DL): No, I would have thought about twice if I did know how long it would take. At the beginning, I would have quit if they told me it would take four-and-a-half years of my life.
When I started the movie, I thought, “Wow, it’s amazing there’s not a film about Cesar Chavez.” This is so powerful, and comes at a time when communities are growing. I thought everyone was going to want to make this film.
So I went out and started shopping the idea of the film to studios, and I sat down with executives. Everyone gave us the chance to sit down, which made it seem like it was happening. But then they said, “Wow, this is great. We love what you’re doing, but we’re not going to join. Once you have a film, show it to us, and we’ll probably be part of it.” I thought, “No, we need the money. We can’t just go out and do it.”
I heard things like, “Can you make it more sexy?” I was like, “How am I going to make it sexier?” If I did that, the farm workers would be living in a different reality today.
They also said, “What about having A-list actors? Can you have Antonio Banderas?” I thought, “The man existed. There are pictures and murals. You can’t just say, ‘Well, now he’s going to look like this.'” This is about a Mexican-American who was born in Arizona.
So we didn’t find support in this country. At that point, I promised the family I was going to deliver a film. I also invested about a year of my life to the film. We were working on the script with Keir Pearson.
So I said to my partner, (producer) Pablo Cruz, “Let’s go to Mexico.” In a week-and-a-half, we found 70 percent of the money, which allowed us to come back and get the other 30. When we came back, we found the perfect partner in Participant Media. They make perfect films for the market that we’re trying to prove exists.
We decided we wanted our company to come to the States and open an office in. We want to make films that would matter on both sides of the border. We want to tell stories that connect us with where we come from, and the community we belong to.
My son was born here in the States, so he’s a Mexican-American. He got an American passport before he got a Mexican one, in fact. We wanted to make this a story that he would be able to use to find out where he comes from, and what needed to happen to make him where he is at the moment.
Q: Why did you decide to shoot the movie in Mexico?
DL: We decided to shoot in Mexico for two reasons. One, the film was financed there, which brought us a lot of support. But the main reason was because we first went to California to look for locations. But we decided if we shot in the States, we wouldn’t shoot there, because the actual places have changed dramatically since the 1960s. So we would have to recreate the locations.
We shot in Sonora, which produces 80 percent of the table grapes of Mexico. The feeling while you’re there is the same as the one in the valley of California. You’re really in the middle of nowhere.
Q: How do you hope this film changes society’s perception of Latinos?
DL: I think something has to happen before that can occur. We Latinos have to learn from guys like Cesar that if we organize, we have the strength to change the world. I don’t think we’ve been so well-organized since his time. Yes, there are a lot of complaints against this country from our community, but I would start looking at ourselves in the mirror, and ask, “Why haven’t we done anything?”
We have a chance to send a message on March 28th, and say we want these kinds of films to come out. We can say we want our stories to be represented, and our heroes to be celebrated.
I think two things matter here. One is that Cesar showed us that our strengths are in our numbers. So I don’t know why we, as a community, haven’t experienced that feeling of power that we actually have.
The other thing is that everyone in this country, not just Latinos, has a reality that’s still uncomfortable. The conditions in the fields today aren’t great, and the struggles continue. Consumers also haven’t been aware of what they’re part of when they buy a product since then.
What Cesar and the union did was connect with consumers and the rest of America that didn’t think they had a connection with this community. They found a way to say, “Our story should matter to you, because when you buy a grape, you’re supporting child labor.” When mothers listen to that in a store, they stop buying grapes. So it’s finding what connects us. I think that’s a beautiful message that applies to the film, and not just in America, but the whole world.
Q: There are some younger people today who don’t know the power of Cesar’s movement. Is there a plan to expose the film, as well as his story and message, to the younger generation?
DL: We’re focusing a lot on kids. Before the proper promotion started, we spent two weeks going to high schools and universities, like Harvard, Berkley, UC Irvine and UCLA. We’ve also been pushing to do a ton of videos to raise awareness of who Cesar was, and what the movement stood for, on social media.
That’s where Participant Media comes in. They have an amazing reach, in terms of a call-to-action movement. As a part of our movement, we’re also working on a petition for President Obama, about making a Cesar Chavez National Day of Service. There’s a website, Take Part, where people can sign the petition. We need 100,000 signatures to go to Obama. A few states today have a day celebrating Cesar, but we thought having a national day would be the way he would have liked to be remembered.
The film should be the beginning of something bigger. It should hopefully trigger the curiosity of people, and they’ll try to figure out what this movement was about. It’s difficult to inform about everything they did in an hour and 45 minutes, and still entertain.
It’s the same thing in Latin America. A few people here know Cesar’s story, but if you go down to Latin America, everyone thinks he’s a boxer. It’s hopefully something the film will be able to change. If the film can bring attention to the people still working on the struggle, I’ll be very proud.
I did this film because I have some distance to the story. I wasn’t alive when this happened, so that gives me some objectivity. But the angle I took for this is the perfect angle for people who don’t know the story, and are listening to it for the first time.
Q: Was the role difficult for Michael Pena, who had to carry the message on his shoulders?
DL: I was working with Rosario here, and we were having lunch one day. She told me, “It’s unbelievable how much Michael changed for this role. He’s nothing close to what he portrayed here.”
I always told him, “Michael, we have to be aware. We can’t do the film in the Hollywood way.” We can’t suddenly say Cesar was a great speaker, and the Martin Luther King-type of leader, because he wasn’t. He was very humble and timid. As a result of the amount of urge he had for change to happen, he had to become the leader.
But if he had the change to step back and stay behind, he would have done it. He was a great listener. He organized these people, because he took the time to listen to everyone’s story. This is a community that has been ignored for so long, and suddenly someone arrived and cared about their story, and said their story mattered.
This was a man who got out of these conditions. He was living in the city, and changed his life. He wore a suit and had a job, but he said, “We have to go back to the fields, and change things from the inside. It’s not going to come from the outside.” He went back and not only sacrificed his reality, but also the reality of his family. I liked when he told his son Fernando they were all going to have to sacrifice things.
Q: Speaking about the sacrifices Cesar made in his relationships with his children, did you have to sacrifice your relationships with your children while working on the film?
DL: I’ve never had to go as far as he did. I would never give away my weekends with my kids. I think that’s what made him heroic. I don’t know if I would be able to go as far as he did. He left his kids for months.
The film is also about a father and a son. There’s a reflection on the relationships between fathers and son in the film that I didn’t understand until I had children.
The film also changed the way I looked at my own father. When I had a baby, I said, “Dad, you did all this?” My mother died when I was two, so he had to play both roles, as well as work.
I do films because of my kids. I think about them every moment of my life. They’re involved with very decision I make. They probably won’t know this until they have their own. (laughs) He had eight kids, and still managed to do all this.
Q: Was there any footage you shot that you didn’t include in the final film?
DL: The first script I received went from the day he was born to the day he died. You can do that in a fictional film, but with the life of a real person, I think that’s very unfair. It’s impossible in an hour and 45 minutes to tell a journey of over 60 years.
So I decided to concentrate on one achievement, and for me, one of the most important ones was the boycott. I thought that if I could explain how and why the boycott happened, and what it brought to the community, I would send the right message.
I didn’t want to do a film just about this community. I wanted to make a movie about how this community managed to connect with the rest of the country. The powerful message here is if change ever comes, it’s because we get involved and connect with others.
This is the first movie about Cesar and the movement. It’s unfair to ask one film to fill the gap of so many years, and tell everything that hasn’t been told. Hopefully, the movie will bring curiosity, and people will go investigate it a little more.