While leaders of civil rights movements are important and essential in bringing about important change to society and humanity’s views on other races, the activists who are in the forefront of helping support these innovators are just as vital in spreading the message. This is certainly the case with the title activist and his supporters in director Diego Luna’s new biographical drama, ‘Cesar Chavez.’ The film passionately emphasizes the struggles and obstacles Chavez overcame to help bring about the much-needed change of minority farm workers. It also showcased the aid his fellow activist, Dolores Huerta, who’s played by Rosario Dawson, diligently offered him during their battle for equality.
‘Cesar Chavez’ follows the title protagonist (Michael Pena), a Mexican-American who co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Dolores in the 1960s in California. Cesar, the most recognized 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 minority farm workers. The union set out to help Mexicans and Filipinos, who were working long hours in grueling conditions for very low wages.
Supported by his loyal wife Helen (America Ferrera), Cesar, Dolores 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 UFW 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 leader never failed to give up on his mission.
Dawson generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Cesar Chavez’ during a roundtable interview in New York City. Among other things, the actress discussed how she’s attracted to play strong women, such as Huerta, who make their presence known in their communities; how she spoke and worked with Huerta before she began filming the biographical drama, to help understand her mindset and motivations, and how the activist supported her portrayal; and how she hopes audiences will support the movie, and show Hollywood that viewers do care about seeing Latino issues on screen.
Question (Q): You’ve been taking a lot of pretentious roles lately.
Rosario Dawson (RD): It’s really interesting, because a lot of these films have been shot over the years. We did ‘Gimme Shelter’ in 2011, and we shot this in 2012. It just so happened that they’re all coming out at the same time. Then ‘Sin City: A Dame to Kill For’ coming out in August.
I think I have a tenacity to gravitate towards stories like these. I’m drawn to particularly strong women of different matters. Just because (June in ‘Gimme Shelter’) is a drug addict, doesn’t mean she’s not a strong woman. She’s very strong and intensely related to the people around her.
I like playing women who make their presence known in their communities. But it’s also been fun over the years to play sick, soft, nervous or anxious women. I find being vulnerable to be much more difficult to play.
Q: How did you become involved in the film?
RD: I have no idea what happened on their side, but I know they searched really high and wide. I know Michael Pena was on Diego’s first list early on. But they still went and looked, because it was very difficult. I know America was a part of it when they first started.
Diego just met with me and asked if I would play this role. He describes it that I interviewed him, because I know and love Dolores. So we met to talk about the movie. I was like, “Why are you doing this film? What are your motives behind it?” (laughs)
It’s a really important story that hasn’t been told. We’ve seen it in documentary form, but not in a feature film.
It’s a big deal that the family even relinquished the rights to do the film. Cesar was asked during his lifetime if he would do the movie, and he always said no. He didn’t like accepting awards in his own name. If there was an award to be given to him, he would have it go to the union. He really didn’t like that position.
Paul Chavez did a panel at SXSW, and he said he thought his dad might be made we made a movie about him. But I think he’d understand, and see the film for what it is. It doesn’t show just one petition or march; it took a lot of years.
The movement grew all across America, into and through the White House and to Europe. That’s a big deal. Marginalized poor people were able to make that happen. This community could become powerful if they organized and came together. He was able to make that happen, and had the right people with him. That’s remarkable, because this wasn’t someone who had high education or privilege. So it’s a big deal the story be told, and I think he’d understand.
He was talking about the new wave of technology in his last messages, particularly about reaching the masses. They were making comics to deliver into the fields, because people were illiterate. The comics helped teach them about their rights. They were remarkable in being able to bring together a marginalized community.
I received messages from the Chavez family, saying how happy they are that I’m promoting the movie. Of course I’m promoting the movie! It’s their life work, and it’s a big deal they’re getting this opportunity to talk about it in a different arena. The issues are still poignant today, because only 20 percent of the farm workers are under the union. That leaves 80 percent of the workers in the same conditions they were fighting for back then.
People need to understand the food we have before us, which is the cheapest and most accessible in the world, comes at a very dear price. If you’re not paying it, who is?
Q: What challenges did you face playing Dolores in this film?
RD: With Dolores, there were multiple things that were really hard, actually. It’s difficult when you play a real person who’s still alive, and you’re talking to them and want to honor and celebrate them.
Q: So you interviewed her before you began filming?
RD: Yes, and I had met her before doing activism with the Latino community, which was great. Since then, I have also helped her with her foundation (the Dolores Huerta Foundation). She’ll show up, and be wearing a Latina shirt, which is really awesome.
But then there’s also the reality that it’s a Cesar Chavez film. People have always asked to do a movie about her, but she always said she wanted there to be a film about him first. I think what’s really remarkable about this movie is that it really shows how women, especially his wife, were a big part of his life.
It also shows how broad this community who made this movement possible was. He was a very reluctant hero, and he wasn’t the best speaker, but his message was really clear. He was speaking for himself, his family and his greater community. He was passionately involved in the whole messaging, which pushed him into the whole thing.
It’s interesting that Dolores became such an interesting partner with Cesar. She’s very forthright and in-your-face. She has no problem going, “Okay, I’m jumping into this meeting, but I’ve never had any experience writing a contract before.” I think they really balanced each other out.
I think having women be such a big part of the movement was what helped it stay non-violent. I really credit Diego for making a film that really shows how many people were a part of it, especially those women. Dolores has been recognized so often, but we don’t really see what Helen contributed. It was very important what she did.
Q: Are you still in contact with Dolores?
RD: Yes, I just received an email from her daughter. We just saw Dolores at SXSW, because she came out for the screening, and we went out dancing during the after party. (laughs)
Her family has four generations, and she has 11 children. They’re all remarkable people.
When I went to visit her in Bakersfield, she was driving me around. She’s amazing, and that was a scary aspect to it, because I love her so much, and I want it all to be in there.
This is a movie that captures 10 years of a movement in a little over an hour-and-a-half. So I don’t think you even touch, or skim the surface, of what Dolores has contributed to us over these years. I think it’s impossible to do that in something like this.
But I hope with the success of this film, there’s an opportunity to tell her story, because she’s still writing it. She’s still in the frontlines. She’ll get kids and wait staffs to sign petitions. She also sits in on the social media campaign and panels, so she can learn more about tweeting.
I’ve been anxious about what her reaction would be since I heard this movie was happening. She read the script and made notes, and we would talk. I called her during filming and said, “Oh, I’m pregnant now, and I’ve got my belly showing.” She said, “I never showed, and I had 11 children. People never knew I was pregnant. I would have the baby, and then be at a march.” But that wasn’t really shown in the film, but every little detail was making me nervous.
I kept asking my publicist if Dolores had seen the movie, because I was nerve-wracked. I was like, “I need to know if she’s seen this movie.” I didn’t want to call her, in case she hadn’t yet seen the film. I didn’t want to tell her my opinion if she hadn’t seen it yet. She never called me, but just tweeted at me. (laughs) She tweeted congratulations, and how she loved the movie and my performance. That was so awesome.
Q: Diego and producer Pablo Cruz’s film company is set up to deal with social issues. This is definitely a project about social issues. Was it your primary aim to put this issue out there?
RD: Even America is part of the social movement. She joined us in working on the Latino issues. The opportunity to take these issues and cross pollinate them into all these worlds has been remarkable.
I remember during my interview of Diego, I really responded to the fact that he was approaching this as a father. He discussed how his son was born in America, so as a Mexican, he realized he has a Mexican-American son. He wanted to tell a story for his son and his community.
He has seen Cesar Chavez Avenue and Cesar Chavez Boulevard, and murals of him, but he didn’t know who the person was behind it. As he did more research, he was baffled there wasn’t a movie that was already made about this man. Then he got permission to make it happen.
There was a very strong through line about a father and his son. When Diego was interviewing Helen about the film and Cesar, she said their lowest moment was when their son left, and they realized he wasn’t coming back. So with their younger sons, he made sure to be more present in their lives, and have stronger relationships with them. He didn’t want what happened with Fernando to happen with them.
That’s part of the sacrifice. You’re seeing real people struggle with the dynamics of working really hard. You never really see that.
Dolores was put down a lot, because she was a woman who was out on the road a lot. People would say what a bad mother she was, because she has 11 children.
But you never see that from the perspective of the father. Cesar was gone from his kids for a really long time. It’s beautiful to see how much sacrifice was put into the struggle. His kids were growing, and he was missing out on their lives for months.
I love that was put in the film, because it makes the struggle universal. Filmmaking is an incredible way to share our human conditioning experience. Diego’s own father-son relationship was put into the story.
This isn’t a Mexican-American story; this is a historic moment that’s universal. This is a story about a father and his family and their community, so I think anyone can be connected to it.
Most of the funds for the film came from Mexico. So to have someone like John Malkovich and his company stand up and say he wanted to be a part of the film, because he sees the bigger picture, was great. He saw something he really appreciates and understands, and wants to share. I think it’s remarkable like minds came together.
Obviously, not everyone in the cast and production is an activist. But I think by virtue, being and working together on this material, led everyone to support this cause. These actors walked off the stage, transformed. Films like this have the potential to change not only audiences’ mindsets, but also the ideals of the people who make them.
Q: How do you think this film will change the way Latinos are perceived in Hollywood, and how films about the Latino community are made?
RD: I think a lot of that is going to depend on the actual audience. We received the audience award at SXSW, which was awesome. If people come and see this movie, then I think that sends a very clear message to Hollywood, which didn’t fund or support it being made.
But it came in to distribute it, which was amazing and very important. They see its potential. If it does well, it bodes very well for the future for us. Then we’ll be able to tell more of our stories.
That’s like Robert Rodriguez creating (his cable TV channel) El Rey. He said he thought he would see a lot of Latino filmmakers after he hit the scene, but they didn’t. I started thinking about that, and how they don’t really have a place to put their work. If they are making movies, they’re not getting past Latino film festivals. He said, “I’m going to create a space for people to create and own their work.” It’s going to take people creating and supporting those opportunities.
I think that’s important, because when you look at Latino millennials, they’re really only treated as consumers. But they have to be innovators, because that’s the only way we’re going to grow as a nation. We really have to start investing in our young people. It’s important for them to realize the movements they can be a part of, or starting or joining. This film is really inspiring, and I’m curious to see what happens after this.