It's tempting to frame the career of social-justice pioneer Dolores Huerta in the context of her partnership with Cesar Chavez, with whom she founded the United Farm Workers of America. Tempting, but wrong, as argued in "Dolores," a new documentary that spotlights her central role, outside of the labor leader's shadow, in the fight for workers' rights.
Despite a life devoted to grass-roots organizing that ultimately saw her sharing the stage with Barack Obama as a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom winner, Huerta's contributions have remained something of a footnote. But with this kaleidoscopic retrospective of Huerta's life and career, filmmaker Peter Bratt underscores her vital contributions, placing them on a par with those of other, better-known champions of the worker.
"Dolores" illustrates Huerta's life with archival and contemporary news footage, supplemented by peer testimonials and the recollections of family members. Woven together, these threads form a compelling portrait: Growing up among Latino farmhands in Central California, Huerta developed a social conscience early, fighting for workers' rights even at the expense of personal relationships. Several of Huerta's 11 children speak about the negative impact of her long absences — although they also say that she inspired them to take up social-justice careers of their own.
Their candor is echoed in Huerta's frankness about how her work affected her marriages and later romantic relationship with Chavez's brother Richard, admissions that help humanize this fiery, larger-than-life figure. We see Huerta taking on the Teamsters; organizing the grape boycott of the late 1960s; and sharing the stage with Robert F. Kennedy. Although we don't often think about the sacrifices made by those who occupy the world stage, "Dolores" reveals the effects of its subject's choices, on a personal and political level.
The film captures Huerta's infectious energy — energy that changed the lives of the "worst-paid workers on the planet," as one of the film's subjects describes farm laborers. But her influence goes beyond that work, as evidenced by Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem and others, who note that Huerta made it acceptable for women to join picket lines, to demonstrate and, more generally, to make their voices heard. It was Huerta's gender, the film argues, that kept her from being credited as Chavez's equal.
"Dolores" is a fascinating corrective to 50-plus years of American history. It's educational, to be sure, but also exhilarating, inspiring and deeply emotional. As the film makes clear, Huerta has accomplished much and, at 87, continues to live by the words of the now-famous phrase she originated: Sí se puede — yes, we can.
Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains footage of police brutality, the Robert Kennedy assassination and children with medical deformities. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 97 minutes.
On Friday, Huerta will participate in Q&As after the 4:30 and 7 p.m. screenings. (Both are sold out.) She will also introduce the 9:30 p.m. show.