Diego Luna, Rosario Dawson: Why Chavez Movie Matters Today

Image: Cesar Chavez - Press conference - 64th Berlin Film Festival
Actor and director Diego Luna, who directed the upcoming movie "Cesar Chavez," seen here discussing the movie at the 64th Berlin Film Festival on February 12, 2014. BRITTA PEDERSEN / EPA

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As part of the national press tour for the upcoming biopic, Cesar Chavez director Diego Luna and star Rosario Dawson met with journalists Monday in New York City to discuss the first major film about the Mexican-American icon.

Cesar Chavez focuses on Chavez’ journey from labor organizer to founder of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) to national champion for social justice. Michael Peña plays the title role, with America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) in the role of his wife Helen. John Malkovich also co-stars as one of the grape growers opposed to Chavez’s organizing efforts.

Luna, best known for his starring role in the film Y Tu Mama Tambien, was born in Mexico and admits that initially he did not know too much about Chavez. “I remember images of his funeral, I was 14 or 15; I remember the image of thousands of farm workers walking with the wooden box (casket) that he asked his brother to build for him,” he said. “I remember that image, but I didn't know why he would move so many people.”

Luna said it was when he was in California, years later, that that he realized he needed to educate himself about Chavez. “I felt horrible to be driving through an avenue called Cesar Chavez without knowing who he was, to see murals, to see schools, parks named after him, without actually knowing why. I started researching and was shocked there was no film about him.”

Cesar Chavez is Luna’s first English-language project. The film recently won an audience award at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas, in the “Narrative Spotlight” category.

One of the reasons that it took so long to bring Chavez’s life to the big screen, Luna said, is that his story confronts people with a very “uncomfortable and inconvenient” truth. “If you look to the fields today, if you take a look, you realize, a lot of this (injustice) is still happening, the struggle is still continuing.” He added that the current inaction on immigration reform “makes no sense.”

Dawson plays the co-founder of the UFW, Dolores Huerta. It was a role that appealed to Dawson because she is renowned for her acting (in such films as Kids and Rent), as well as for her own activism. She is a co-founder of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan organization that aims to empower Latino Millennials.

Dawson spoke highly of Huerta, who still active in causes today. “She is with it, she gets it, …and she tweeted me to tell me she liked my performance!”

Actress Rosario Dawson said she hopes next time people sit down for a meal, they will contemplate who picked their food.

Dawson pointed out that Chavez and Huerta, working together, turned their local movement into a global phenomenon – long before social media ever existed. “This film is not just a celebration about historic movement in our time, it is not just a history lesson. It's a provocation.” She hopes that the next time people sit down for a meal, they will contemplate who picked their food.

In the film, Chavez (Peña) declares, “I’m angry that I live in a world where a man who picks food can’t feed his family!” Yet Cesar Chavez depicts the achievements of a man who was a devoted pacifist – as well as the personal toll that Chavez’s activism took on his wife and children, especially his oldest son Fernando (Eli Vargas). “I didn’t want to make a film about a saint,” Luna said.

Cesar Chavez had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February. The film opens nationwide on March 28, three days before several states celebrate Cesar Chavez Day.