With ‘Cesar Chavez,’ Diego Luna examines a man on a mission


Michael Pena stars in “Cesar Chavez,” a biopic about the civil rights activist. (Pantelion Films)

You can make a movie about a protest, or you can make a movie about a protest leader. “Cesar Chavez,” out Friday, is more about the man than the movement — a careful choice on the part of director Diego Luna.

“I did two years of research and interviews, and then I decided to forget all that,” Luna says of his choice to focus on the life of the Mexican-American civil rights activist in his biopic. “I decided to think about the father, and think about the husband and think about the everyday struggle of having to leave your house knowing they need you there, in order to bring something about that you know is necessary.”

Michael Pena (“End of Watch”) stars as Chavez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (now the United Farm Workers union) and led strikes against grape growers. Chavez also called for a national boycott of grapes in 1968, which helped vastly improve conditions for the field workers, most of whom were Mexican or Mexican-American.

His success came at a cost. Luna, a native Mexican known for his roles in “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Milk” — wanted “Cesar Chavez” to make that cost clear to audiences.

“In terms of portraying a man, you cannot give yourself concessions,” he says. “You cannot say, ‘Well, I’m not going to talk about his flaws.’ I think film is about bringing that intimacy to an audience.”

That strategy, Luna says, mirrors the one used by Chavez, who had to get Americans to realize the grapes they ate were picked by people — often kids — who were exploited.

“[Chavez and his supporters] said, ‘How can we tell a story that would matter to someone in Chicago that doesn’t know they have a connection with our world?’ ” Luna says. “Then you can draw attention to the things that matter to you, but it’s a consequence of that connection.”

Kristen Page-Kirby covers film for The Washington Post Express.
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Kristen Page-Kirby · March 28