Were incredibly excited to be here in Washington, D.C. and to be sharing this film as part of the greater conversation, the national conversation, about how these issues are still so relevant to each and every one of us, not to just Latinos…”
The D.C. premiere of Diego Luna’s new historical drama, “Cesar Chavez” was full of stars, cameras and, of course, popcorn.
Held at the Newseum on March 18, 2014, the premiere came just one day before the film would make its way to the White House for a special screening, attended by stars Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera as well as director Luna. “Cesar Chavez” had just been screened at Austin’s SXSW festival, where it won the narrative spotlight audience award and the cast was riding the wave of success right down the red carpet.
“We’re incredibly excited to be here in Washington, D.C. and to be sharing this film as part of the greater conversation, the national conversation, about how these issues are still so relevant to each and every one of us, not to just Latinos, not to just farm workers,” Ferrera said.
Much of the talk on the carpet involved immigration reform, a key issue not just for the film, but also for Voto Latino, the main sponsor of the event and the film and a cause close to Dawson’s heart. She acts as the organization’s chairwoman and co-founder. Maria Teresa Kumar, the organization’s CEO, was also at the event and helped introduce the film.
Both women emphasized the importance of having a voice in the voting process, especially with the upcoming mid-term elections, in order for immigration reform to become a reality.
“People want this to happen and they want it to happen now, they don’t want it to happen tomorrow,” Dawson said.
Luna’s biopic is the first of its kind – that is to say that it is the first film to document Chavez’s protests and boycotts to earn fair wages for farmers. While he was alive, Chavez did not give permission to any filmmaker, not wanting to sensationalize himself and his efforts. He was just “an ordinary man doing an extraordinary thing,” according to Luna.
“If my father was around, he would probably be scolding all of us,” Cesar Chavez’s son, Paul Chavez said in a Q&A session after the film.
But, word from the actors affirmed that both Paul and his mother Helen Chavez, portrayed by Ferrera in the film, were pleased with the care Luna took in telling the story. It took over four years for the film to be made, time Luna was willing to spend to ensure the family would approve.
For Ferrera, the pressure was high – her performance is, as the moderator of the post-film Q&A session put it, the “Rosetta Stone of Helen.”
After meeting with Helen, seeing her strong character, and having a little bonding time over Ferrera’s well-known role as Ugly Betty on television, the role was able to come together.
“I hope that the essence of her power comes through,” Ferrera said.
And it does. She is never just standing on the sidelines. She gets riled up, she gets arrested, and she shows the greater toll Cesar’s investment in the cause took on their family as a whole.
The last time we’ve heard America Ferrera say “si, se puede,” Spanish for “yes, we can,” on screen was in the Disney Channel original movie “Gotta Kick it Up!” from 2002. While it acted as a motivational phrase for the dance team in that film, “si, se puede” originated as the rallying call for the United Farm Workers that Chavez fought for in the 60s and 70s.
Chavez, portrayed by Michael Peña (End of Watch, American Hustle), takes this slogan around California and even to Europe in the quest for fair wages and better working conditions.
“The campaign of Cesar Chavez went viral before we even had that as a word,” Dawson said.
Luna captures the immensity of Chavez’s struggle through his interactions with the other characters, like Dolores Huerta (Dawson), who co-founded the United Farm Workers. Dawson’s character provides certain level-headedness to the cause but also acts to ignite passion in the workers when they begin to lose hope.
And although the film is a biopic, the drama and plot do not bore because, for many people, it is a history that has never been fully taught. Luna said that he “wanted to do a film that wouldn’t feel like a history lesson,” and “Cesar Chavez” accomplishes that goal.
The humanity in the characters, the depth of the struggle and the enduring impact of Chavez’s work create a film that is not just recognition, but also a celebration and a reminder of how much progress can be made.
“I think it’s a film that celebrates first the legacy of the man that brought change to the community and that is a big part of why we’re doing this film, but also I think because naturally by looking or listening to this story its inevitable to think about what is happening today to farm workers, what needs to happen for our food to get in front of us and if that reflection happens in the people, if that reflection and that question generates some kind of debate, I’ll be very happy. That’s when I will think the film worked,” Luna said.