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Struggling for equality: ‘Cesar Chavez’ is an intimate biography of the humble farm laborer and activist by the same name

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Michael Peña plays labor organizer Cesar Chavez in a movie about his life.

Michael Peña plays labor organizer Cesar Chavez in a movie about his life.

“Cesar Chavez” is a Mexican-American “42,” a quietly inspiring and well-acted tale of a civil rights icon whose story isn’t nearly as familiar as Jackie Robinson’s. But then, Chavez wasn’t a ball player. He was a union organizer. And while Robinson, with some reluctance, had nobility and greatness thrust upon him, Chavez was a humble farm laborer who set out to be an agent of change.

Mexican actor-turned-director Diego Luna has made an emotional movie with simple human dimensions. Chavez wasn’t a dynamic speaker or necessarily that charismatic. He looked and sounded very ordinary, a modest man driven by simple righteousness. So it’s appropriate that Luna’s film (based on a Keir Pearson/Timothy J. Sexton script) stumbles a little with the sweeping moments in this intimate biography passed off as larger-than-life epic.

Chavez’s struggle to unionize exploited farm workers – his long marches, his hunger strike – make for moving moments, but rarely achieve grandeur. It’s the commonplace organizational struggles, the Gandhi-like obsession with nonviolence and the stubborn refusal to be bullied by the bigoted, the rich, the armed and the powerful that stands out in “Cesar Chavez.”

Michael Peña (“End of Watch”) has the title role, a farm worker whose family once had land but lost it in the Depression. He has labored in the fields. He knows the back-breaking, knee-bloodying work of grubbing up onions or cutting grapes. He knows the campesinos who do that work, with few breaks provided by the growers, and no toilets “because Mexicans don’t know how to use ‘em, anyway.”

The film picks up his story in the early 1960s. He’s already trying to organize the pickers.

“Do you own anything?” he asks one, in Spanish. “Can you read or write?” And finally, the tipping point question, “Do you want more for your kids?”

His union bosses in Los Angeles (Rosario Dawson plays one) have been trying and failing to get headway by leafleting and the like. Chavez says, “I wanna get my HANDS dirty.” And with his wife Helen (America Ferrera), he loads their eight kids into a tiny Volvo and moves to Delano, Calif. They work in the fields by day and have meetings, trying to convince workers to hold out for better pay, better working conditions and “human dignity,” by night.

Peña, a low-heat actor in most films, uses that to his advantage here. Chavez was famous for holding his temper, following Gandhi and Martin Luther King’s ethos of nonviolent protests, legal obstruction (pickets, boycotts) and passive resistance.

Ferrera gets to be the fiery one, playing a willful woman who brushes aside her husband’s patriarchal sexism, vowing she can get herself arrested just as easily as the next organizer. When California makes it illegal to say the word “huelga” (strike) in the fields, Ferrera’s Helen screams it with a wild-eyed passion that is positively chilling.

John Malkovich plays a rich, landed grape-grower who is passing his business on to his son and who leads grower opposition to “giving in” to “dirty foreigners.” He himself is an immigrant, but he’s willing to ally himself with his more bigoted peers to get his way.

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